Point of view

Trying to fortify food deserts in NC

April 26, 2014 

Once a month, Ramira goes grocery shopping. She takes the bus from her apartment in Southeast Raleigh to the supermarket on the edge of town. If everything goes well, and it often doesn’t, the bus ride takes 30 minutes each way.

Ramira faces the choice of taking her three children with her or stopping on the way back from Wake Tech, where she is studying to complete vocational training. She stocks up on all of the food that her family will need for the entire month.

“We’re shopping for the month … because we don’t have the money to keep traveling back and forth every day to the market,” she said. And despite the organizational challenges, she would rather do it that way than risk having to run down to the corner store, where she says the prices are triple what they are at the grocery store.

Ramira was doing her best to keep her children healthy. She took them to the park in her neighborhood several days a week, and she was trying to eat more fruits and vegetables, to set a good example for her kids. But her limited budget, lack of transportation and filled-to-the-brim daily routine conspired against her. Ramira told me that if she had more money, she’d buy salads and vegetables, but that it was impossible to do that when she shopped only once a month. “Those are perishable things and they go bad really fast,” she explained.

Ramira is one of the millions of Americans who live in what the USDA calls “food deserts” – urban neighborhoods and rural towns where people do not have access to fresh, healthy, affordable food. I talked to Ramira as part of Voices into Action, an ongoing research and outreach project on food access in North Carolina. All of the families we’ve talked to struggle to put food on the table. For those who live in food deserts, it’s even more complicated.

It was because of stories like Ramira’s that we held a community workshop in February 2013 at Martin Street Baptist Church in Southeast Raleigh. The previous month, the neighborhood’s only supermarket, Kroger, had closed. Nearly half of the people we interviewed in Southeast Raleigh did not have a car. Without a neighborhood grocery store, residents were forced to choose between relying on the bus system or shopping at nearby corner and convenience stores.

Of the 24 corner and convenience stores we surveyed in the neighborhood, only three sold any fresh fruit. None sold any fresh vegetables. In addition, prices of items like canned vegetables, milk and bread were higher – an average of 66 percent higher – than at supermarkets.

At the same time, it’s not easy for the store owners, either. Kroger left because it couldn’t turn a profit, and the small stores don’t have the capacity to buy large quantities of food at wholesale prices, which diminishes their chances of success. So what’s to be done?

The N.C. House of Representatives recently established a committee to address exactly that question, a move that we cheered. I presented our research to the committee last week, the same day it released its recommendations. And while it was gratifying to see our legislators talking about issues of food access, much of the meeting’s conversation focused on whether state government should limit the taxes that local governments can levy on retailers, an issue that, in the end, probably has little effect on food deserts.

The creation of the committee was a good first step, but the recommendations do not offer institutional or financial support to help small store owners or community organizations take healthier food into neighborhoods that need it.

In the community meeting we held in Southeast Raleigh, participants talked about the need for self-reliance and self-determination. In the wake of the Kroger closing, organizations have stepped in with creative ways to fill the gaps –from a farm on wheels to community gardens to church food pantries. But they’re strapped for resources, too, and they can’t do their important work alone.

These neighborhoods, and the people in them across the state, need and deserve our support. They also deserve a government that is willing to engage its resources in a productive partnership with local communities in order to create and sustain a viable market for one of the most crucial elements of human well-being: healthy food.

Sarah Bowen, an assistant professor of sociology at N.C. State University, directs the Voices into Action project.

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