Conservation Minnesota

Living in a Food Desert

food desert, n 1.a low income census tract where a substantial number or share of residents has low access to a supermarket or large grocery store (as defined by an interagency working group of the US Treasury Department, Health & Human Services, Department of Agriculture, along with staff from the Economic Research Service ERS/USDA) 2. an area that lacks access to affordable fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat milk, and other foods that make up the full range of a healthy diet (U.S. Center for Disease Control) 3. an area that lacks consistent access to affordable fresh, organic and locally grown fruits, vegetables, whole grains, dairy and other foods that make up the full range of a healthy diet (Kristin Eggerling).

I didn’t realize until recently just how the term food desert was being defined. As someone who lives in a food desert and is passionate about local, organic and healthy foods I was surprised to find out that access to a supermarket or large grocery store (Walmart? Sam’s Club? Seriously?) would even be part of the definition. I’ll go out on a limb here and offer that while Walmart and Sam’s Club may not be the problem, unless big changes are made they aren’t the solution either.

I live in the Red River Valley, home to fertile soil and some of the richest farmland in the country. I live here in the middle of farm country where agriculture drives the economy and many of the communities only exist because of farming. Yet, I live in a food desert. Ironic, isn’t it? As evidenced above, my idea of what constitutes a food desert differs significantly from how some others define it, but keep in mind that I live in a food desert under all three definitions. We don’t have a Walmart, a Sam’s Club, or some other kind of large grocery store, super center or club store. Our poverty rate is high. We have to travel far to buy much. We grow and sell very limited amounts of organic, fresh food. There is no food co-op or farmer’s market. There are few restaurants. We lack access to the full range of foods that make up a healthy diet. Any way you look at it, it’s a food desert.

Research has found that individuals who live in food deserts have a higher rate of obesity and other health problems. As obesity and sickness rates rise so do our health care costs.  Our rising health care costs are playing a key role in our struggling economy and even recent labor disputes. Maybe I’m getting ahead of myself, and I should be clear that I’m not saying that food deserts are the cause of all our problems, but it seems to me that it would serve our society well if we could make some strides in eliminating food deserts.

I believe that if our food systems were more locally based food deserts would not exist. In other words, I think that the move away from local food systems has played a significant role in manufacturing food deserts. And so, I believe that part of the solution in solving this problem is to make our food systems more local. This would, obviously, start with small steps. Encouraging home and community gardens or establishing farmers markets and farm to school efforts would go a long way towards increasing fruit and vegetable consumption and increasing the availability of local, organic and affordable foods, thus, promoting healthy eating.  Once these community food projects were implemented we could take further steps towards making our food system more local and, thus, more sustainable and healthy. It would only be the beginning, but it makes way more sense to me than building a Walmart in every community.

If you want to learn more about food deserts and the demographic data that has been used to define an area as such, the Internet has some great tools and interesting facts. Much of the information is organized by county. I may not agree with some of the government agency definitions but they’ve done an excellent job compiling information and advancing the discussion on food deserts. Check out www.ers.usda.gov/data/fooddeserts/about.html for the food deserts locator or www.cdc.gov/features/fooddeserts for more information on the topic.

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