Food deserts make meeting basic nutritional needs difficult
North Carolinians’ struggle to put food on the table for their families has gotten more attention of late. North Carolina catapulted to the dubious distinction of being the state with the fourth highest level of food insecurity in the latest data release by the USDA. State policymakers, during the federal government shutdown, then tried to cut off WIC vouchers, being one of the first in the nation to do so. And now we are approaching the November 1st deadline when cuts to the benefit amount for food stamps or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program will make it more difficult for more than 1 million families to put food on the table.
Today, as various groups recognize “Food Day”, another aspect of the challenges to meeting basic nutritional needs is being highlighted: the lack of places to buy healthy food in many communities. In North Carolina, the Support Center has found, twenty six percent of North Carolina’s census tracts do not have a healthy food retailer within a half-mile of their community.
The presence of food deserts is another issue. Communities in a food desert require travel (more than a mile for an urban area and more than 10 miles for a rural area) to reach a retail outlet or other place where food is sold. That presents challenges particularly for low-income families that often don’t have flexible or reliable transportation. The map here shows that many food deserts exist throughout the state. Nearly 60 counties have at least one food desert and some many more.
A lack of proximity to the places where food is sold is particularly disturbing when at the same time North Carolina continues to produce significant pounds of vegetables and other produce year round. Greater connections are being made through local farmer markets and farm to school initiatives to ensure that consumers and growers can be connected.
One additional policy idea that has been effective in other places is a state-funded Healthy Food Financing Initiative, which provides capital to retailers and businesses that seek to expand access to healthy foods in communities that are underserved. This is a win-win in meeting the nutritional needs of North Carolinians and supporting job creation, business anchors, and the revitalization of commercial districts in the state.