Most Union County residents — and Americans, for that matter — take access to nutritious food for granted.
Grocery stores and farmers markets are a short car-ride away. But 17,000 people in Union County live in what the U.S. Department of Agriculture defines as a food desert.
Food deserts became a buzz word a few years ago, applying most often to poor neighborhoods in big cities where the nearest true grocery store is a prohibitive distance away. Convenience stores accepting food stamps exist in these areas, but few sell fruit and vegetables. When they do, produce is rarely fresh or affordable. Fast food restaurants offer affordable high-calorie, low-nutrition meals. But these restaurants do not qualify to take government food stamps.
After years of research, experts found that food deserts exist even in rural areas or in neighborhoods where household incomes vary dramatically. There are several such food deserts in Union County. Some are government housing projects in Monroe with mostly elderly residents. Others are trailer parks south of Wingate and Marshville, often surrounded by fields full of crops bound for poultry and hog farms to be used as animal feed.
But some groups are trying to improve these residents' access to fresh fruits and vegetables. The boldest programs bypass the large grocery chains to partner with local farmers, selling fresh produce directly to people who struggle with access.
A city and country problem
Food deserts were identified using information from the U.S. Departments of Treasury, Health and Human Services and Agriculture. The USDA maintains an interactive database of each food desert, its census tract information, its location and distance to the nearest grocery store.
The federal government defines food deserts as "a census tract with a substantial share of residents who live in low-income areas that have low levels of access to a grocery store or healthy, affordable food retail outlet." According to a 2008 USDA study, only about 2.2 percent of all American households live more than a mile away from a proper grocery store and another 3.2 percent live between a half-mile to a mile away. Food access is not a problem for all of those residents. Some grow their own food or have reliable transportation to and from food stores.
But the very poor, disabled and elderly have a much harder time getting to these stores and buying groceries.
"Urban core areas with limited food access are characterized by higher levels of racial segregation and greater income inequality. In small-town and rural areas with limited food access, the lack of transportation infrastructure is the most defining characteristic," the study states.
The same study found a strong link between ease of food access and consumption. If the nearest store only sells processed foods, nearby residents were more likely to go there and buy the processed food instead of traveling farther for nutritionally dense food.
Larger grocery stores and farmers markets have lower fresh food prices than small convenience stores. That means customers on government nutritional assistance get less food for their allotted monthly amount at the nearest stores than if they shopped at bigger stores.
In urban areas with public transportation, low-income residents can take a bus or train to a grocery store. But that assumes the person is able to carry their purchases onto transportation and then into their homes. If the person is elderly or disabled, that might not even be possible.
In rural areas, older and disabled people rely on county transportation, relatives or neighbors to take them to grocery stores if they cannot drive themselves.
Dustin Adcock is the N.C. Agricultural Extension local foods agent for Anson, Stanly and Union. A farmer himself, he sometimes gives away bushels of squash or sells a few dozen ears of corn for a dollar to elderly residents of government housing projects in Union County.
"These are people who have no good access to fresh food, who might not get vegetables otherwise," Adcock said.
Emily Sigmon is the communication coordinator for the N.C. Community Transformation Grant Project. The group, called CTG Project for short, is a state-funded organization that looks for ways to improve overall resident health. It had three main initiatives - tobacco-free living, active lifestyle and healthy eating.
CTG staff tracks food deserts in its 10-county coverage area.
"The CTG Project is working to address low-access to healthy food and beverage items by enhancing existing and creating new farmers’ markets in all 10 counties, as well as working with local convenience store owners in identified food desert areas to offer fresh fruits and vegetables, and items like low-fat milk and whole wheat bread," Sigmon wrote in a June 7 email
It partners with local health and social services departments to collect demographic and health information. Together, staff try programs that correct health disparities.
"Through this collaborative effort, the Union County Health Department and the CTG Project are working on creating a new farmers’ market at the Union County Government Department of Social Services & Health Department building on West Roosevelt Boulevard," Sigmon wrote. "By bringing a farmers’ market to this location, it increases access to fruits and vegetables by those who receive services at DSS and the health department, as well as individuals who live nearby."
Based on 2010 U.S. Census data, there are about 17,000 people, or 1.8 percent of Union County's population, that live in food deserts. Roughly 2,100 are children aged 17 and under and 1,100 are senior citizens.
"Food deserts factor in more than just location to or distance from a supermarket or large grocery store. It also factors in an area’s low-income population," Sigmon wrote. "A food desert is identified as an area with a large amount of residents who are low-income and that have low levels of access (physical and financial) to a grocery store or healthy, affordable food retail outlets. In order to be considered a food desert, an area must be identified as a low-income community. A low-income community is based on having either a poverty rate of 20 percent or greater, or a median family income at or below 80 percent of the area median family income.
"Low-access, is often thought of in terms of physical access—the distance residents live from a supermarket or large grocery store," she continued. "A low-access community is determined by having at least 500 residents that live more than one mile from a grocery store. Union County is considered an urban county, therefore, food deserts are determined on a one-mile access rather than 10 miles, as in the case for rural counties. So, to be considered a food desert by USDA’s definition, a community has to qualify both as low-income and low-access."
Grocery and convenience stores are not the only place people can buy food. There are also prepared meals at restaurants but not all restaurants offer what the USDA considers "nutritious" food.
"Over half, approximately 57 percent, of Union County’s restaurants are considered fast food restaurants," Sigmon wrote. "Fast food restaurants do not count as access to healthy, affordable food in a food desert."
Access is a real problem for low-income rural neighborhoods and mill towns, especially in Anson County, Adcock said. Older people living on pension or Social Security benefits who possibly grew up on farms struggle to afford fresh, locally-grown foods.
"We're making a turn for the better around here as far as access, but some people, especially the grocery store industry, have taken an interest in the local foods movement," Adcock said. "They've put a premium on foods grown locally and turn a good profit on it."
Ironically, some food desert residents live in the very areas where food is grown, he said. Eastern Union County is dotted with homes among wide fields of grain, corn, row crops, soybeans and fruit. But the big farms producing that food sell their crops to large grocery store chains or to livestock farms for animal feed.
"We have all this food but the people living right next to it don't have access to it," Adcock said.
Importance of freshness
Fresh produce is healthy food, Adcock said.
"A tomato that's allowed to ripen on the vine and then picked that day is going to have a lot more nutrients in it than a tomato that was picked green and shipped up here from Florida on a truck over the course of several days," he said.
Transporting food takes time, so commercial farmers pick crops before they ripen so fruits and vegetables are not spoiled when they arrive at the grocery store. Produce begins to lose water-soluable nutrients like vitamin C as soon as its picked. The older the fruit or vegetable, the less nutritious it is.
Not all food is equally good for the body. Hundreds of scientific studies proved that diets low in vitamins and minerals promotes disease. Obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancer have a strong medical link to the quality of what a patient eats.
The best way to get all needed nutrients is to eat a wide variety of foods. Nationwide studies considered distance to the nearest proper grocery store, but underestimated the impact of neighborhood markets, road-side stands, pick-your-own farms, and dollar stores that sell fresh, frozen or canned vegetables.
"(Nutritious foods) can also be purchased at many food outlets, including those that many consider lacking in nutritious foods, such as fast food restaurants. It is likely that even the smallest food retailers stock foods that have nutritional merits; however, it is also likely that some retailers may offer very few of these options," the 2008 USDA study states. "No one food can fulfill the recommendations for a healthy diet. So measuring what 'nutritious' food is and where it can be found must necessarily encompass a broad array of foods and sources of foods."
The time from vine to plate is important with fresh produce, but frozen and some canned produce retain much of their nutrients for much longer. People in food deserts can buy and keep preserved foods, provided they have storage space.
There is no single obstacle to food access, so there is no one solution. The CTP Project holds regular workshops for social workers from different counties on ways to get food to those in food deserts. One move that improved the types of foods available was to create new or boost existing farmers markets.
"That's been a big help, getting local growers to start selling directly to the public through these outlets," Sigmon said.
Educating everyone about the importance of a healthy diet is also an ongoing challenge for local and national groups. Raising awareness that food deserts exist and how to eliminate them are also powerful tools.
And state legislators introduced a bill this session that would give grocery chains incentives to move into food deserts, and for stores that sold local produce.