BY JORDAN DELONG, PH.D.
In May of 2017, the Marsh supermarket in Tipton County, Indiana announced that it would be closing its doors for good. While most store closures rarely make the news, the decision to pull out of Tipton County was significant because the Marsh was the last supermarket in the entire 260 square miles of Tipton county. This is not to say that food is scarce, as fast-food restaurants such as McDonalds, Burger King, Taco Bell are alive and well within Tipton County.
Tipton County is in danger of becoming a Food Desert – an area of the country where it simply isn’t possible to buy fresh, healthy food. Economic data of Tipton County paints a curious picture: low unemployment (less than 4%) yet low wages (per capita income is $23,499/year) combine to create an ironic, agriculturally-driven local economy where it is not profitable to sell fresh food. In Hamilton County, which lies directly south of Tipton County, the per capita income is nearly double ($40,012/year) and grocery stores are prevalent, including a Whole Foods Market in Carmel, Indiana.
Food deserts are a growing concern in the U.S. – and they impact the health of low-income households in both rural and urban environments. In urban areas, a food desert is marked by having a supermarket more than a mile away from a person’s home. For Los Angeles, food deserts show up in areas of East L.A., Inglewood, and Anaheim. In these areas, most food purchases come from convenience stores and fast food outlets, leading to increases in chronic health conditions and obesity. In Detroit, the distance to the closest market selling fresh produce is twice the distance of the closest fast food restaurant.
Impacted communities may feel powerless to influence the choice of food in their environments, but experimental programs have shown great promise in increasing the availability of fresh produce. One such program, the Catawba County Public Health Farmer’s Market, has worked with local government to create an accessible source of local, healthy food, allowing for payment not only through cash, debit, and credit, but also allowing payment through “foodstamp” programs that many low-income families rely on. The result is nearly universal adoption of this healthy option: 94.6% of Catawba County WIC recipients report that the farmer’s market helped to increase the amount of fresh produce consumed by their family. In addition to providing healthy foods to people that wouldn’t have access to them otherwise, local markets allow money to be reinvested into the local economy rather than going to a chain of convenience stores.
This isn’t to say that farmer’s markets are a panacea – they face major challenges. Picking a market location, hours, and getting local growers on board can make the process difficult. The University of Buffalo, with support from the USDA, offers blueprints and training courses for those interested in working with their local government. But the success of Catawba County represents a glimmer of hope that a practical solution exists to break the cycle of poverty and poor nutrition in low-income rural and urban communities.