Food Deserts in Virginia
The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines “food deserts” as areas where people cannot access affordable and nutritious food. They are usually found in impoverished areas lacking grocery stores, farmers markets, and healthy food providers. Food deserts contribute to food insecurity, which means people aren’t sure where their food will come from.
People living in poverty rely on each other for transportation in order to meet their food needs. One participant brought her neighbor to the food pantry because she doesn’t have a car. They pooled the food they received to make a casserole for themselves and their neighbors. This is a great example of the impact that access to transportation can have. The community in which these participants live is not considered a food desert per se; however, for the older adult who has no transportation, there is a real barrier to food security.
Imagine the difficulty of traveling on a bus with small children to purchase groceries and then boarding that bus with several bags, along with your children, for a one- or two-hour ride back to your neighborhood.
Choosing food or medicine, the importance of the food pantry in Lynchburg is illustrated by one couple’s struggle to choose between medicine and food. Both have diabetes, but with a combined income of only $530 per month, the cost of medication even with assistance from Medicaid is prohibitive. The woman chose to buy her husband’s medicine but couldn’t afford her own that month. They rely on the food pantry but find it difficult to eat healthy because much of the food is processed. Still, they are very grateful for the pantry and the food it provides. Contributed by Meredith Ledlie Johnson, Family Nutrition Program project associate, and Sarah Misyak, human nutrition, foods and exercise Ph.D. student, Virginia Tech.
If nothing is done, health care costs will continue to spiral upward, and obesity rates will continue to impact health care costs as well.
Research suggests that residents who have better access to grocery stores and supermarkets tend to have healthier diets and lower levels of obesity (Larson, Story, and Nelson et al. 2009) although limited access to grocery stores is not the primary cause of obesity. Virginia’s 2012 average obesity rate of 27.4 percent translates to an additional medical cost of $11.4 billion annually. The medical costs for people who are obese are estimated to be 42 percent or $1,429 higher than those of normal weight (Finkelstein et al. 2009). If nothing is done, the commonwealth will fail to provide people in food deserts with a level playing field for achieving better academic outcomes and job opportunities. The ability to succeed in the job market is predicated by the ability to succeed in school. If students are unable to succeed in school due to hunger and poor nutrition, they may subsequently be unable to prepare for and/or succeed in the job market. “Nutrition clearly affects academic performance,” according to a joint Princeton University and Brookings Institution report (Story, Kaphingst, and French 2006, 110). Poor nutritional status and hunger interfere with cognitive function. They are also associated with lower academic achievement and job performance, which often results in costs to the employer and may result in job loss.
Consideration of Mobile Markets Family Nutrition Program instructors and students who work with focus groups in Danville recently learned that even though residents are excited about the farmers market, some have trouble accessing it because its limited hours of operation don’t fit into their schedules. They are very interested in the idea of a mobile market that would take produce throughout the community, making it easier for residents with little time or ability to travel to access the market’s fresh fruits and vegetables. Otherwise, their access to fresh produce may continue to be limited. — Contributed by Meredith Ledlie Johnson, Family Nutrition Program project associate, and Sarah Misyak, human nutrition, foods and exercise Ph.D. student, Virginia Tech.
Consider Growing Your Own Food.
Many people can empower themselves and their communities by growing food in backyards or rooftop gardens, community gardens, or in any location where a small plot of land exists. It doesn’t take much space to grow a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables. You can start where you are.
Change begins with one person, and one community at a time.