‘Food deserts’ being found in more than just cities, some in rural areas

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COLUMBUS — Appalachian Ohio and rural areas in the western part of the state appear to be at higher risk of suffering from a lack of access to reasonably priced, nutritious food, according to a new Ohio State University analysis.

The term “food desert” describes areas that have limited access to healthy, fresh food. It is often used in an urban context to describe areas where major grocery store chains have abandoned large portions of low-income communities.

But rural areas are also prime areas for food deserts, said Jill Clark, director of Ohio State University’s Center for Farmland Policy Innovation.

To answer a call by the Ohio Food Policy Council to learn more about Ohioans’ access to affordable, healthful food, she and graduate students Francis Muamba and Nathaniel Betz studied access to retail grocery stores in their report, Food Access Gaps in Rural Ohio.

Rural vs. urban. “Nearly 45 percent of Ohioans live in rural areas, but, in Ohio and even nationally, there have been very few studies examining rural food deserts,” Clark said. “It’s important to look at, because the issues regarding access are different in rural areas, and the strategies required to address those issues will be different from those designed for urban areas.”

The report is available online at http://cffpi.osu.edu/fooddeserts.htm.

To conduct the analysis, the researchers used a unique way to measure distance — instead of using straight-line “as the crow flies” measures, they used GIS road network technology to estimate drive-time.

“That’s incredibly important when studying rural areas,” Clark said. “Road networks are not as dense, and it may take much longer to get to a location than might be evident on a map.”

In examining access to retail food outlets, they included supermarkets, corner markets, and other grocery and convenience stores.

Farther from store

Among their findings: 24 percent of rural Ohio households live outside of a 10-minute drive to a retail grocery store of any size, and 75 percent live further than a one-mile walk. Of the rural Ohio households living within a 10-minute drive to a food store, 3.8 percent do not own a vehicle.

Rural Ohioans who live outside of a 10-minute drive to a retail grocery store tend to have lower per capita incomes ($22,371 vs. $23,105) than those who live closer to grocery stores.

Most rural communities have limited public transportation systems that would enable people without their own cars to get to a grocery store. The report describes two case studies, in Marion and Gallia counties, that outline how limited access to public transportation affects access to food.

Less competition

Competition between large supermarkets, which can keep food prices lower, is unusual in rural areas; only 29.5 percent of rural households are in areas where there is more than one food store with more than 40,000 square feet.

Those stores are more likely to have a larger selection of fresh fruits and vegetables. (“Big-box” stores are normally more than 100,000 square feet.)

In some areas, access to fast-food restaurants is easier than access to grocery stores: 24.6 percent of rural Ohio households live within a 10-minute drive to a fast-food restaurant, but not a large supermarket.

Now what?

This report is extremely beneficial, said Amalie Lipstreu, senior program manager for Sustainable Agriculture at the Ohio Department of Agriculture.

“It’s a critical piece of the puzzle, showing the need to increase food accessibility in rural areas, especially in Appalachia Ohio,” Lipstreu said.

“It’s what we need to move forward with the Ohio Neighborhood Harvest initiative.”

The initiative, announced during Gov. Ted Strickland’s 2010 State of the State Address, is aimed at designing a statewide strategy to improve access to Ohio-grown products and affordable, healthy food to people in every neighborhood in Ohio.

Lipstreu, who is also coordinator of Ohio’s Food Policy Council, said she hopes local Food Policy Councils that are forming throughout the state can take the report’s findings to address issues faced in their local communities.

“The whole idea of ‘food deserts’ is kind of abstract, but it describes the need that healthy food has to be locally available and affordable,” she said.

Her office is also working with the Ohio Department of Health to do baseline mapping of food deserts in urban areas of the state.

For more information on Ohio’s Food Policy Council, see http://www.agri.ohio.gov/divs/FoodCouncil/foodcouncil.aspx. For more information on the Center for Farmland Policy Innovation, see http://cffpi.osu.edu/.

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