My grocery store choices are staggering. Within a 10 minute drive of my home I have two Harris Teeters, two food co-ops, a Whole Foods Market, a Trader Joe’s, and a Fresh Market. Expand that radius by a few more miles and I can choose from Aldi, Super Target, Wal-Mart and more. I even have three farmers markets within bike-riding distance.
It’s easy to forget how lucky I am when I am bemoaning the analysis paralysis of having to choose where to pick up my artisan bread or organic tomatoes. 1.5 million North Carolinians don’t have even half the choices I do.
North Carolina is home to 349 food deserts — low income areas without access to healthy food or grocery stores. Families who live in food deserts often rely on fast food or convenience stores for their daily fare. This causes a number of problems, chief among them is the health of those who cannot buy fresh vegetables or fruits.
Like many issues involving poverty, food deserts inordinately affect women and children. Women-headed households are far more likely to be under the poverty line, and single moms are, statistically, impoverished. Programs such as WIC and SNAP provide money and vouchers for moms to buy food. But these programs can’t create grocery stores where there are none. Therefore, even parents who have the help they need to buy food can’t make healthy choices.
This year, the North Carolina Legislature formed a bipartisan committee to explore food deserts in North Carolina. In the spring, the House and Senate considered bills intended to address this problem. The bill appropriates $1 million to buy refrigerators for convenience stores in low-income low-access areas. Currently the measure has been referred to a committee and may not pass this year.
In the meantime, what can we do to help the millions of moms, dads, and kids who face diabetes and obesity because the only way to fill their bellies is fast foods and junk food? We can support school lunch and breakfast programs, which ensure kids get at least two healthy meals a day. We can give to food banks and programs that send backpacks full of healthy food home with school children.
But ultimately we must address the underlying problem: The lack of parity in our culture. People like me who can’t decide between Whole Foods or Harris Teeter have no way to understand what it’s like to have no transportation and only a 7-11 for sustenance. We must prioritize programs that subsidize healthy food and improve access, even if we can’t relate to the problems these plans address.
Do you live in a food desert? How would you solve the issue of hunger and lack of access to healthy foods. Next Thursday we’ll be meeting in Winston-Salem for our annual Women’s Summit, and we’re hosting a panel on food deserts in North Carolina. Tickets are still available, and we’ll be hearing from CNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry, President of the Center for American Progress, Neera Tanden and local experts in women’s issues. Check our Facebook page for updates and information.