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WASHINGTON—A food desert is not a new geography term; it’s an apt description of areas where low-income consumers either cannot afford healthy, nutritious food or don’t have affordable transportation to that food.
More than 150 census tracts in Virginia can be classified as food deserts, according to the 2000 U.S. Census. They include entire counties in Southwest and Southside Virginia, as well as slices of cities.
The term food desert was adopted by the Obama administration’s Healthy Food Financing Initiative Working Group, which has released a Web-based map highlighting more than 6,500 areas nationwide where the only local food sources are fast-food restaurants or small-scale convenience markets. The interactive map is available at ers.usda.gov/data/fooddesert/fooddesert.html.
"We’ve seen a lot of demographic and population shifts over the past 20 and 30 years, and one thing we’ve seen is a large abandonment of rural areas," said Spencer Neale, Virginia Farm Bureau Federation senior assistant director of commodity marketing. "And with that comes a decline in the number of supermarkets and grocery stores in very rural areas. The small-town grocery store is no longer there, so people are at a disadvantage because it’s more difficult to find a selection of affordable and nutritious foods."
Neale noted that, despite living in rural areas, many lower-income consumers live 10 miles or more from a supermarket or other local food source—well beyond walking distance or even convenient driving distance in more rugged terrain. And urban consumers fare no better, he said, even though they may have the option of walking or public transportation. They often live in areas where grocery chains have moved out to follow a more profitable customer base in the suburbs.
The Virginia Food System Council, a group of government and private agencies and interest groups, is studying Virginia’s current food production and delivery system. Neale, who represents Farm Bureau on the council, said the problem of food deserts is high on their radar. The council is working on a statewide food system assessment and plans to release a report in November.
Farmers care about the issue of food deserts, because it strikes close to their core values, Neale said. "The food system council is considering many options, but they have to be cost-effective. Farmers consider what they do both a vocation and a business. At the end of the day, they need to be both productive and profitable. But if we can find ways to reach these food deserts with locally-grown foods, those are market opportunities that could be opened up for Virginia farmers."
Contact Neale at 804-290-1153 or Norm Hyde, VFBF communications, at 804-290-1146
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