Food deserts: Healthy food access prioritized as a quality-of-life issue needing solutions

When many people imagine an area with limited access to fresh food, they picture an inner-city neighborhood without a real grocery store – one that sells fresh fruits, vegetables and meats. But even in rural areas, the problem of food access is real. Store chains such as Dollar General and Aldi, which offer a limited assortment of products, do provide some access but not the full range of fresh fruits and vegetables that are key components of healthy eating.

TomatoesLike some inner-city areas, many of Indiana’s rural tracts and small towns (as well as rural areas and small towns across the nation) qualify as what the U.S. Department of Agriculture describes as “low access” areas. Sometimes referred to as “food deserts,” low access areas are defined as being more than 1 mile from a supermarket or large grocery store in an urban area or more than 10 miles in a rural area. (Click here for an online tool that allows visitors to see how various factors affect Hoosiers’ access to fresh food.)

A mile or two is a long way to travel if you have to depend on public transportation or your feet to get yourself, your groceries and your kids home in time to cook supper, and 10 miles is a long way to travel if you don’t have reliable transportation or if you have mobility issues due to age or illness.

And even if they have no transportation issues, farmers and other rural residents would benefit from the convenience and economic advantages of having a grocery store nearby.

It is for these reasons that when considering rural quality of life, the Indiana Farm Bureau board of directors chose “Eliminate food deserts” as one of the organization’s priorities.

“Having access to fresh, healthy food is an important quality-of-life and economic development issue for rural residents and city dwellers,” noted Shelby Swain, INFB associate policy advisor.

The issue has been discussed at the Statehouse. The General Assembly’s Interim Study Committee on Government met on Sept. 6, and Swain gave testimony that detailed how food deserts affect rural areas. INFB-supported legislation that addresses this issue is anticipated for the 2018 session, Swain added.

INFB is part of the Indiana Healthy Food Access Coalition, which consists of a group of stakeholders working to provide solutions that aim to bring an end to food deserts. INFB’s goal is to serve as the rural voice on the issue within the coalition, highlighting that the problem is both urban and rural.