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Lost in the food desert

Emily Williams

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The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines food deserts as areas where a significant percentage of the population lives more than a mile from the nearest source of fresh, healthy food. For many people living in a food desert, the only source of food they have access to are nearby gas stations and convenience stores, which supply primarily unhealthy food items.

A recently released USDA report ranked Alabama among the top 10 states for food insecurity, referring to 
households without access to enough food to support a healthy lifestyle. Nationally, 14.3 percent of households lack access to healthy food on a regular basis. In the state of Alabama, the average percentage of households that are considered food insecure is 16.7, according to the same USDA study.

Henry Lipsey, executive director of the West Alabama Food Bank, said the Black Belt counties, Hale and Greene, are two of the most food insecure places in Alabama. Greene County is one of the largest food deserts in the entire state.

“To be honest with you, Tuscaloosa County is really not in that bad of shape as far as food deserts go,” Lipsey said. “It’s has a multitude of grocery stores and places where you can buy food. It’s the far outlying counties that have more of a problem with that.”

Lipsey said many small communities can’t support large grocery stores. In the past, he said, residents grew a lot of their own produce and bought their staples at country stores. Now, he said, most people don’t grow their own food and the country stores have gone out of business, leaving few options for fresh food.

“One of the problems with the food deserts is that you can take care of it on a short-term basis, but it’s not going to last long,” Lipsey said. “What you really need is somehow to develop growing businesses in those areas. If you could stimulate the growth of country stores then you would help alleviate that problem.”

The West Alabama Food Bank created a network of Mobile Food Pantries, which deliver food to residents on a weekly basis within various communities. The food bank serves nine counties in West Alabama: Bibb, Fayette, Greene, Hale, Lenoir, Marion, Pickens, Sumter and Tuscaloosa counties.

While Tuscaloosa County has less food insecurity than the surrounding area, there are localized food deserts within the community. Just east of campus, off McFarland Boulevard, the neighborhood of Alberta City is considered a food desert according to the USDA Food Access Research Atlas.

Elizabeth Manning, a graduate of the UA journalism masters program, did her graduate research project on food deserts in West Alabama. She created an interactive website, foodinsecurity.ua.edu, to help illustrate food deserts in the Tuscaloosa community.

Manning lived at the Retreat at Lake Tamaha her freshman year, which lies within the boundaries of the Alberta City food desert. While she personally did not suffer from food insecurity because she owned a car, she said it made her aware of the problems in the area.

“You’re living in a city with a very wide income gap, and the poor population doesn’t have access to transportation,” Manning said. “There’s so many people [affected by it,] especially with the aftermath of the tornado, which took so many resources from people.”

Manning said lack of education about healthy options is not the problem. In many cases, cost outweighs nutrition when deciding what to eat.

“I spent a lot of time with people who literally have nothing,” Manning said. “They live on food stamps, and they literally live month to month. A lot of them know that they need to eat healthier – they’re not ignorant. But they can get these unhealthy food options that their kids will love and eat for so much cheaper. It’s so expensive to eat healthy.”

When Manning investigated the problem of access to healthy food, she found many factors contributed to people’s ability to get groceries, including low income, lack of transportation and unfamiliar surroundings.

“What I started learning was that a lot of these places that did have healthy food options like the River Market – it was so nice and upscale that there was a portion of the Tuscaloosa population that felt like they didn’t really belong there,” she said. “They’re feeling excluded because they’re not the Northport population.”

An alternative source of produce comes from the Druid City Garden Project, which sets up gardens in local elementary schools to teach children about growing and eating healthy food. Lindsay Turner, executive director of the Druid City Garden Project, said the weekly program is especially effective in schools like Oakdale Elementary, which is situated in a food desert.

“The first thing we’re trying to do to address the problem of food insecurity is teaching our kids where their food comes from, that food doesn’t just magically appear at the grocery store,” Turner said. “We’re connecting kids to their food source, and indirectly connecting their parents to the food source as well.”

The Druid City Garden Project sponsors a program called Budding Entrepreneurs, where students set up produce stands in the pick-up lines outside their schools and sell the vegetables they have grown to parents and other members of the community.

“Our Budding Entrepreneurs program is probably our most direct way of dealing with food insecurity and putting healthy, affordable food into homes,” Turner said. “And our kids take pride in the fact that they’re growing this food and then selling it back to the community, and they’re learning how to operate a small business.”

Turner said parents get as much out of the program as their kids do. She said some parents have told her they learned about different types of vegetables and about the seasonality of produce from their children.

“It’s an opportunity for parents to purchase fresh, healthy, organically grown food for a very low price,” Turner said. “We subsidize the cost of our food at the farm stand, so whether you’re a parent that earns $250,000 or $12,000 you can afford the food from our stand.”

Turner said intervention and education about healthy eating at an early age is the only way to prevent obesity and other health problems in the future.

“Kids have to learn how to eat, we have to demonstrate that for them,” she said. “We’ll have some schools where our kids already have a pretty good base knowledge about healthy food and we’re just building off of that, and we have some schools where we have literally been asked the question, ‘Does ice cream grow off of trees?’”

Dr. John Higginbotham, associate dean for research and health policy at the College of Community Health Sciences and director of the Institute for Rural Health Research, studies the effects of food deserts on childhood obesity. Because of the lack of healthy food options, he said children who grow up in food deserts have a higher risk of Type 2 diabetes and other health conditions associated with obesity and poor nutrition.

“Right now our adolescents and our young children, 31 percent of them are either overweight or obese,” he said. “If we look at the adults, that number jumps to 69 percent in our state. These children are going to have the same problems with obesity that adults are having but at a younger age. There have even been some people who have said this may be the first generation that doesn’t outlive their parents if it continues to go in this direction.”

Higginbotham was recently awarded a $1 million grant from Project UNITED, which works to reduce childhood obesity in Alabama’s Black Belt region. Through Project UNITED, Higginbotham aims to create lasting solutions to food deserts and obesity by customizing solutions that fit each individual community.

Higginbotham and Turner agreed that while the issue of food deserts is a largely geographic problem, educating children about nutrition is a key element in trying to work towards lasting change. Manning said the first step to finding a solution is to raise awareness in the community, particularly among college students who are largely unaware of the problem.

“There are so many students that just go for that college atmosphere: study, party, get your degree,” she said. “If you have the opportunity to get that higher education, you need to use that to help others. It’s really important if you’re going to college for four years and you’re going to live in a community that you learn about that community.”

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