'Food deserts' developing in rural, lower-income areas

Published: Jun. 13, 2011 at 6:29 PM EDT|Updated: Jun. 13, 2011 at 9:43 PM EDT
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RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) - How close do you live to the nearest grocery store? For many people, it's a short drive. But for many low income families, it's much further away. That's why the USDA created a map showing where "food deserts" are located, neighborhoods without nearby grocery stores.

"Most of us in Richmond know where there's a supermarket located and where they're not," said Spencer Neale, Senior Assistant Director at the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation.

Pink zones on a new USDA map show where Greater Richmond has food deserts, no grocery stores within a mile in city neighborhoods. And in rural parts, no grocery store in ten miles. Food deserts are usually in low-income areas.

"In Virginia alone, there are over 200 areas that have been identified as food deserts," Neale said.

For people who don't have cars, food deserts limit their access to nutritious foods.

"A mile is long way. It's way too far to walk and get groceries. And with public transportation, that's a possibility, but how much can you buy and carry?," Neale said.

The problem, researchers say, is that when there's no grocery store, people tend to eat what's convenient, often at fast food restaurants and convenience markets, which do not offer the full variety of nutritious foods and fruits and vegetables.

"You begin to get nutrition issues, especially for families and elderly people, who need a nutritious diet," Neale said.

The reason food deserts exist is that its harder for grocers to make a profit there, or independent stores may have closed from competition or crime.

"If you don't have a well-run store when competition comes around, you can sink," said Donnie Caffery, owner of Good Foods Grocery.

Caffery agrees there are food deserts, but points out even people who live near supermarkets will make poor food choices. "The obesity in this country is a result of the personal choices that people are making to not nourish their bodies in a way that its designed."

He suggested the answer is that grocers should open smaller stores in food deserts, or local governments should offer incentives.

The Virginia Food System Council plans to release a statewide food system assessment in November.

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