Food desert or oasis?
By Karissa Minn
SALISBURY – Several low-income communities in Rowan and Cabarrus counties don’t have easy access healthy food, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
But people who live and shop there say those “food deserts” aren’t as barren as they seem.
The USDA defines a food desert as “a low-income census tract where either a substantial number or share of residents does not live close to a supermarket or large grocery store.”
Nearly 50,000 residents of Cabarrus and Rowan counties live in food deserts, and about 40 percent of them are defined as having low access.
That includes four Census tracts containing the towns of Landis and China Grove, the community of Enochville and a small area along North Main Street in Salisbury. Another four tracts in certain parts of Kannapolis and Concord are included.
Landis resident Luana Erwin lives just a couple of miles away from a Food Lion – close enough for a quick drive, but outside the one-mile radius set for urban areas.
“I don’t find it a problem, but I am a person with transportation,” Erwin said Wednesday. “I’m disabled and on a fixed income, and it has not been a struggle for me to get to the store.”
She said people who don’t have cars can take the bus for easy access to one of the grocery stores in the area. There are also convenience and discount stores where people can buy food staples if they need them.
Other shoppers at the Food Lion on South Main Street in China Grove agreed that southern Rowan doesn’t lack nutritious food.
“I don’t really think it’s a problem,” said Jane Corriher, who lives nearby on N.C. 152. “We have a farm, so we grow some of our own food. Most of it we get from the grocery store, which is not far at all.”
For those who struggle to afford healthy food, Corriher said, the local Main Street Mission can provide it for them.
The eight food deserts in Rowan and Cabarrus counties are urban tracts because they contain municipal areas (in Enochville’s case, northwestern Kannapolis counts).
Those Census tracts qualify as “low access” if at least 500 people or 33 percent of their population live more than a mile – compared to 10 miles for rural tracts – from a supermarket or large grocery store. The intent is to count grocery stores within reasonable walking distance of people who may not have cars.
Steve Joslin, Rowan County’s allied health manager, said both cost and convenience can have a big impact on people’s habits.
“This kind of sets us up for other health disparities,” Joslin said. “If I can go down the road and go to McDonald’s, but I can’t go to the grocery store and get fruits and vegetables, then the foods I’m eating are not as healthy as they could be.”
But the percentage of low-access households without a vehicle ranges from just 1.9 to 3.8 percent in Rowan County, and the highest figure in Cabarrus is 7.9 percent. In several other North Carolina deserts, more than 20 percent of households fit this category.
That means very few people who live more than a mile from a grocery store are left without a way to get there.
“This is a rich agricultural community that’s always been used to not having a food store or grocery store close by,” said Alan Goodman, who runs a farmer’s market in China Grove.
Goodman said there are plenty of opportunities to buy fresh, healthy food at farm produce stands and markets like his, but the problem is pricing. He said many people would rather buy processed food, or even fruits and vegetables that aren’t as fresh, if it’s a little bit cheaper.
People selling their own meat and produce from small, local farms often can’t compete with superstores or fast food restaurants, Goodman said.
Still, Joslin said Rowan’s high rates of obesity, diabetes and heart disease show that something needs to be done.
“If we’re going to improve our health status, we need to improve people’s access and ability to buy healthy foods,” Joslin said. “If healthy foods are what we want them to pick, we need to make it easy for them to get it.”
Joslin said the county is already involved in state and federal programs to improve food access and education. With a federal Community Transformation Grant, it will soon help promote Rowan County’s 27 farm outlets, including farmers markets and produce stands.
Ramona Randall said Wednesday she doesn’t think grocery stores are too far from her Enochville home, but she’d like to see another farmer’s market set up there.
“I think people would actually go to a farmer’s market if they had fresh food available,” Randall said.
Next month, Rowan County Commissioner Jon Barber is launching a nonprofit business to help low-access areas. According to a press release, Mobile Farm Fresh will bring fresh, healthy food – including locally-sourced produce – to several areas in Rowan and Cabarrus counties.
The year-round farmers market will operate out of a repurposed city transit bus that is environmentally friendly, the press release said. It will be able to serve multiple locations in the same day, focusing on low-income individuals and neighborhoods.
Mobile Farm Fresh is seeking donors and locations to set up mobile farmer’s markets in the food deserts. For more information, contact Barber at email@example.com or at 704-754-5334.
Barber declined to be interviewed for this story.
The USDA’s food desert data does not include farmers markets, said Shelly Verploeg, an economist with the USDA.
“Part of the reason was that we did not have a very good list of them,” Verploeg said. “And we didn’t know what to do with the fact that they’re only open on certain days of the week and certain months of the year.”Some markets also don’t accept payment with food stamps or other government assistance programs, which can limit access for low-income customers. Verploeg said the most recent maps, which were released in 2011, use Census data from 2000 and store lists from 2006. An updated study should be finished by the end of this year or the beginning of next year, she said.
In the meantime, the data does not include stores that have opened in the past six years, and it might still include stores that have closed.
To see more data and a map of food deserts around the country, visit www.ers.usda.gov/data/fooddesert.