A Town Called Malnourished

By Quick, Susie | Newsweek, April 11, 2014 | Go to article overview

A Town Called Malnourished


Quick, Susie, Newsweek


Byline: Susie Quick

Todd Howard remembers the local store in Hippo, Ky., where he grew up. "They sold TVs, guns, bread and milk," he says. "The essentials." Things aren't all that different in his hometown today--smack dab in the middle of coal country, Hippo remains a rural food desert where access to healthy foods is slim to none.

However, five years ago, Howard did something to change things in Hippo. Just made redundant from his coal industry job, Howard became an entrepreneur-farmer in need of a market for the three acres of corn he planted. Along with a handful of other local growers, he resuscitated the defunct Floyd County Farmer's Market in nearby Prestonsburg, Ky. Now, every Saturday from May through August, customers line up as the farmers unload the freshly picked greens, beans and homegrown tomatoes. The number of farmers participating in the market and the customer base grows with each season.

"Once they come, it becomes a habit," says Howard, who recently added a family of Duroc pigs to his daily chores. "They come nearly every Saturday just to see what's on the menu, so to speak."

Most people think of food deserts as places like inner-city Detroit or east Los Angeles, but they exist throughout rural America, even in communities where produce and fruit are grown. In urban areas, the U.S. Department of Agriculture considers a food desert an area with no ready access to a store with fresh and nutritious food options within one mile. In rural America, a desert is defined as 10 miles or more from the nearest supermarket. It's estimated there are more than 23 million people, more than half of them low-income, living in food deserts. Lack of access to healthy foods and consequent poor diet leads to higher levels of obesity and chronic conditions like diabetes and heart disease. And with recent cuts to the food stamp program--an average of $90 a month per recipient--achieving a healthy diet will be a lot more difficult for the poor.

Health advocates say a more apt description of these carrot- and cantaloupe-deprived environs might be "food swamp." Swamps are generally saturated in fast-food chains offering high-fat and high-sugar value meals, and/or gas station convenience stores that seemingly pump out Red Bulls and roller food on a conveyor belt. Fresh food exists in rural food deserts but it tends to takes a dip in the Fryolator first.

"It's about overwhelming access to really-bad-for-you foods," says Mark Swanson, a social anthropologist at the University of Kentucky. "People tend to buy and eat what's available."

Yet, there's a glimmer of sunshine on all that swampland. From the Appalachian hills to the flatlands of American Indian reservations out west, grassroots organizers and public health advocates are digging in (sometimes literally) to transform rural food deserts. Cooperative extension agents (agricultural experts funded through USDA programs), faith-based groups, and dedicated locavores work like physicians staging health "interventions" by way of farmers' markets, community gardens, food canning classes, and farm-to-school projects, infusing rural pockets with fresh and tasty fruits and vegetables.

Howard says he had no notion about a local food "movement" when he started growing and selling vegetables. His reasons for rebooting the farmers' market were purely financial. "I didn't know what we started five years ago would morph into a place where so many people come together every Saturday to stop and talk. There've been a lot of reunions of folks," he says. The seed he planted now makes him proud: a communion of extended families, neighbors and former classmates brought together by a modest farmers' market.

Dawn Newman, American Indian and tribal-partnership liaison with the University of Minnesota extension service, oversees the master gardening program on the heavily forested Fond du Lac reservation in Wisconsin.

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