>>BY ANN CARROLL I literally trip over a health foods market when I step out my front door. Every Tuesday, a farmer’s market sets up across the street. Yet the good fortune I sometimes take for granted would seem like a mirage to some of my fellow North Carolinians who live in >>food deserts.
What is a “food desert”? Until last year, I’d never heard the term either. “Food desert” describes communities without retailers of nutritious, vitamin-rich food—and at least 60 of North Carolina’s 100 counties qualify.
Don’t underestimate food’s impact on people and their health. If you’re living on a limited income and have little or no access to transportation, you’re going to buy the $1 box of mac and cheese before you buy the $3 bag of edamame. It’s modern-day survival.
But those survival skills come at a great cost to all of us. Children growing up in these communities have diets high in sugary, fat foods– which long-term leads to obesity, heart disease, and diabetes. According to a >>nationwide study, those health problems cost our country $130 million in medical and related expenses each year. I see this scenario play out every day, and I’ll bet you do too: moms at the grocery store who appear to have a limited income load up their carts with frozen pizzas and Twinkies. Their children look overweight—and are malnourished, despite Mom’s best efforts.
The state knows about the issue. The NC Department of Health and Human Services sponsored >>a pilot program in which families receive a $24 voucher for use at farmers’ markets—but many families didn’t use the vouchers. The biggest barrier? Transportation. To counteract that issue, the department used grant money from the CDC to increase the number of mobile farmers’ markets and farm stands.
What does that mean? Robin Emmons of Charlotte, NC, can tell you. Six years ago, Emmons founded >>Sow Much Good, which helps underserved communities grow their own healthy food. Since 2008, she and her team have donated two-tons of organic fruits and veggies to food-assistance programs. The organization also sells produce at reduced prices at stands in low-income neighborhoods.
The issue of food deserts has also been examined by the NC General Assembly. Since January, the House Committee on Food Desert Zones has heard from grocers, producers, and participants from across the state. Among the possible solutions being discussed, the creation of a statewide clearinghouse run by the Extension Service that would coordinate funding to local programs already working to alleviate food deserts and food insecurity.
Want to find out where the food deserts are in North Carolina and the rest of the country? Check out this >>map by the USDA which highlights problem areas.
Just to add to the discussion: There is also a national effort ongoing to address First Food Deserts – areas where there is inadequate support for women to succeed in breastfeeding. These deserts lack Baby-friendly Hospitals, available prenatal and postpartum skilled support, peer counselors or active lactation consultants in WIC, and public and workplace accommodation.
As we address the issue of Food Deserts, we find that many of these same areas are First Food Deserts. Let’s work together to ensure that there are oasis of support and good foods, and we build towards universal access.