Lost in a food desertNorth Dakotans with limited access to supermarkets or grocery stores have been living in a veritable “food desert,” according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and state officials say things must change.
By: Klark Byrd, The Dickinson Press
North Dakotans with limited access to supermarkets or grocery stores have been living in a veritable “food desert,” according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and state officials say things must change.
The USDA classification was developed to help expand the availability of nutritious food as part of First Lady Michele Obama’s initiative to address U.S. obesity. For an area to be deemed a food desert, one-third of — or more than 500 residents — must live more than 10 miles away from a fresh food source, such as a grocery market.Obama’s reasoning behind discovering food deserts is that if people do not have access to fresh foods, they are less likely to eat healthy.
“The idea is that it will be a map to determine if they are underserved, and that can be used to apply for funds,” said Shelly Ver Ploeg, USDA economist.
The USDA, along with the U.S. Treasury and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, have been setting aside funding for the program.
Amidon resident Pat Getz, who lives in the Slope County “desert” and operates the Salvation Army food pantry, said rural residents have become accustomed to traveling for their food, but it would a benefit to have something closer.
“It would be wonderful to go down the street to get groceries,” she said, adding it would eliminate the 50-mile or 100-mile round trip she has to take now. “I think it would be much better if it was easier to get fresh food.”
The food pantry operates on donations and gets fresh foods from some local growers, she said, but a supermarket would allow for higher quality foods for the pantry.
Kenan Bullinger, director of the division of food and lodging for the North Dakota Department of Health, said 10 miles might not be a fair assessment of need.
“It is not unusual with the public being more mobile than they used to,” he said. “But people are traveling farther to buy groceries because of the availability and diversity of products at the larger grocery stores.”
Bullinger said he has noticed a shift for buying local, and for good reason. He said that most fresh produce in large stores travels an average of 1,500 miles to reach its destination and with every mile comes the risk of contamination.
The FARRMS program of North Dakota is pushing to build small communities economies through local food production and purchasing, Marketing Director Sue Balcom said.
“We are taking a look at this from a local food and local economy standpoint,” she said.
The program supports small store cooperation so trucking companies can fulfill their order demands and local supermarkets can get their shelves stocked. Also, Balcom suggested that local growers should supply the stores.
For Melissa Sobolik, director of member services for the Fargo-based food pantry service program Great Plains Food Bank, the solution is finding a way to bring food to the underserved areas.
“I think it is transportation issues,” she said, adding that there has been talk of a “mobile grocery store.”
The Healthy Foods initiative still must be ratified, but Sobolik thought it was a good idea.
“The state needs to have a conversation and come up with creative options,” she said. “We need to start trying something.”