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Is America Becoming a Food Desert?

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With the growth of health food stores like Whole Foods Market and Trader Joe’s, along with more than 6,000 farmers’ markets across the U.S., you might be surprised to hear that vegetables are still a tough sell for most Americans.

Only about 26 percent of adults consume three or more vegetables a day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But the problem may be less about people’s taste for vegetables and more about their location.

Now, more than 23 million Americans live in food deserts, which are defined as areas—from urban neighborhoods to rural towns—that lack access to fresh, healthy and affordable food.

One such area is the town of Lambert, Miss., a small town located in the heart of the Mississippi Delta with a population of 1,700 people; it was featured on PBS’ NewsHour in June 2010. The town, where the median family income is about $21,000, was once a thriving farm community. These days, the only place to buy fresh food in town is a local convenience store. The closest grocery store is 3 miles away, but is pricey and has a limited selection. The bigger store with better prices is more than a 20-mile drive.

Lambert is not alone. Sections of big cities, like Los Angeles and Chicago, suffer a similar fate. Many times, the only place to get a bite to eat is a gas station or a fast food joint.

Earlier in 2011, the USDA released a Food Desert Locator, which is an interactive map showing a population’s proximity to supermarkets. The locator says that more than 80 percent of food deserts are located in urban areas.

“With this and other Web tools, the USDA is continuing to support federal government efforts to present complex sets of data in creative, accessible online formats,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in a statement.

The U.S. government is working to help food deserts increase their access to fresh foods by offering about $10 million in funding to the Farmers Market Promotion Program.

“These grants will put resources into rural and urban economies to create and support direct marketing opportunities for farmers,” Deputy Agriculture Secretary Kathleen Merrigan said in a recent press release. “Consumer and farmer enthusiasm for direct marketing has never been greater. This year we will place emphasis on food deserts because America’s low income and underserved communities need greater access to healthy, fresh food.”

The USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service plans to award grants to projects that develop producer-to-consumer market outlets like farmer’s markets and produce carts, especially in food deserts.

Other small seeds of progress are sprouting as more farmers’ markets allow shoppers to buy veggies with food stamps and programs like Added Value, an urban farm project in Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighborhood, expand.

Suzanne Boothby is a Brooklyn-based wellness writer, certified health coach and co-founder of New York Family Wellness. Visit www.suzanneboothby.com to learn more.

Food Desert Locator

Find a Farmers’ Market at Local Harvest

Added Value

CDC on Food Deserts

Edited by Alison Stanton

Add a Comment2 Comments

EmpowHER Guest

Check out the model for MarinSunFarms.com. We are a sustainable animal farm that utilizes the resources of the region to get healthy meat on people's tables. This model can be applied to produce as well. Setting up farmers' markets is easy if there are local farmers in the area. If the area doesn't have local farmers' (for whatever reason) try something else. Have a community garden as well as backyard gardens. Neighbors can sell their produce for cheap to each other (and free for those who can't afford it) and the earnings go to building other parts of the community.

June 17, 2011 - 8:14pm
EmpowHER Guest

So invest in a small freezer and buy frozen vegetables and fruit. There is NO EXCUSE not to eat vegetables and fruit!

June 17, 2011 - 1:44pm
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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.

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