Among those working to improve access to healthy food for underserved communities, the term “food desert” is frequently used to describe urban areas without grocery stores or other sources of nutritious, whole foods. Food insecurity is a significant problem in these areas. Residents often resort to purchasing groceries from corner stores or liquor stores, where the options are largely processed and contain harmful, artificial ingredients and are in corn syrup, saturated fat, and salt. The health gap between those in underserved, urban communities and those living in wealthier suburbs is largely the result of urban food insecurity, as well as a lack of affordable healthcare for those in low-income communities.
However, a form of food desert often exists in small, rural towns as well. This is a problem that is often overlooked in conversations about food access and food justice. Ironically, many residents of mid-America towns located in the bread basket of the country – towns surrounded by farms – find it difficult to locate sources of whole, organic foods. In these towns, it is not always easy to find meat or dairy products from animals not treated with hormones, or produce not grown with pesticides.
As someone who has family in a small town in Ohio, I have witnessed firsthand how challenging it is to find clean foods for local residents. To be sure, the situation in these towns may not be as drastic as that in rural food deserts. At least many of these small towns have a grocery store. But usually, large, commercial grocery stores carry many more packaged, processed products than whole foods. And the whole foods they carry are often tainted with hormones, antibiotics, and pesticides.
It seems that many health food store owners feel that healthy food is the province of wealthy urbanites and suburbanites living near large, metropolitan areas. This is certainly the case with chains like Whole Foods. From personal experience, I know there is a demand for natural, whole foods in rural areas, but that need is going unmet.
One solution is for rural residents to petition Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, and similar chains to let them know the would like a store in their area. Or better yet – perhaps more rural residents will meet the local need by opening their own stores.
But there is a third option. Many of these rural towns are in close proximity to a number of farms. While many of those farms grow produce – mostly corn – or raise animals for use in the corporate food system, there are likely some smaller farms in the area, as well. Perhaps local residents could work together with local farmers to establish CSA’s or open new farmers’ markets. This option would have the lowest carbon footprint and would provide healthy food to rural residents while bypassing the commercial corporate and corporate organic food systems. It would empower local residents take control of their food supplies.