Urban or rural, food deserts are a tough fix

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July 21, 2011 - 7:00pm

Wal-Mart, Walgreens and other large retailers announced this week they're teaming up with First Lady Michelle Obama to provide access to healthier food to some of the 23.5 million Americans who live in food deserts - communities with no access to fresh and nutritious food.

But what strategy will work? These deserts look very different when they fester in a city versus a sparsely populated town out in the country. And the challenges run deep.

Hope Built Out of Straw

Four wooden survey stakes spiked in a field of tall prairie grass represent a turning point to a small northern Nebraska town. They are the first physical sign that Cody's 130 or so residents will soon have a grocery store. The store, mostly funded by U.S. Department of Agriculture grants, has been in the works for two years.


For video and interactive graphics, jump to the bottom of the story.


Photo by Hilary Stohs-Krause, NET News

An employee with University of Nebraska Extension points a patron of JND Grocery in Omaha toward the store's fresh fruit offerings. The area has been labeled a food desert by the Douglas County Health Department.

Photo by Hilary Stohs-Krause, NET News

Fresh fruit and vegetables occupy a small portion of JND Grocery in Omaha, but store owner David Adams, the University of Nebraska Extension and the Douglas County Health Department are working to increase his offerings. Located in a food desert, the store and Extension are working together to educate residents about nutrition and health.

Photo by Hilary Stohs-Krause, NET News

On the other side of JND Grocery in Omaha, shelves are laden with candy, snacks and soda. Store owner David Adams is working with University of Nebraska Extension and the Douglas County Health Department to add more traditional grocery offerings and decrease local residents' reliance on convenience commodities.

Village Board chairman John Johnson stands in the field wearing blue jeans, a green coat and a baseball cap that sports Cody's motto "A Town Too Tough to Die."

"We've been working with this process for a long, long, time," said Johnson. "Just the time you think you've got it solved they'll throw more hoops you've got to jump through."

The last grocery store in this town closed 10 years ago. So that means residents have to drive 40 miles east to find the closest store a two-hour round trip.

The new grocery store is considered a lifeline that can provide healthy food and even ward off population loss.

But it's moving along slowly, partly because the project is so unusual and rather ambitious. The store will be a registered non-profit; it will involve the high school through a hands-on business curriculum; and it will be constructed out of straw bales.

"We've had people say if a grocery store couldn't work before, why would this work now?" said Stacey Adamson, a teacher at the Cody-Kilgore school. "The bottom line is we don't have to support a family. We've formed a non-profit and funds will go into that and then the students will decide what to do with those funds. Any money that profits above and beyond what we need to make the business run will be funneled back into the community via the student's decisions."

But there have been setbacks. For one thing, the town started working on plans with an architect from Colorado only to realize after submitting those plans that they had to use a Nebraska architect. This cost them several weeks of work and expenses.

Johnson, the Village Board president, made it clear that Cody couldn't build the store without the USDA grants. But it's looking like the town will need to spend up to $30,000 more than they expected, funds that the town doesn't have.

But Cody is at least making progress where other rural communities fail to even take a first step.

No Food or End in Sight

Marilyn Rhoades and her husband run Uncle Buck's Lodge in central Nebraska's Blaine County and they are also 40 miles away from the nearest grocery store.

"Brewster lost its grocery probably 30 some years ago, Dunning close to that time maybe later," Rhoades said.

She said the nearby town of Dunning has some groceries in a convenience store in town. But it has a limited selection of fresh products.

Oddly enough, that sounds like some of the problems in urban food deserts. Like in north Omaha.

Parts of this community have some of the highest levels of poverty in the U.S., particularly among African Americans. So while there may be dozens of grocery stores within 40 miles, these residents need a store they can walk to or reach by public transportation.

"In many urban communities the retail industry will look at the number of rooftops," said Nebraska state Sen. Brenda Council, who represents this district. "What the median income is will be the determining factors in whether they'll invest the kind of capital to be invested in a full service grocery store."

Fresh Convenience

David Adams runs Omaha grocery store J-N-D. The majority of the aisles are stocked with snack foods, soda and beer. But along one wall is a cooler lined with vegetables, fruit, skim milk and lean meats. Adams has lived his whole life in this north Omaha neighborhood and said he's tried to keep healthy options in his aisles but it's tough to keep it fresh.

"This was a grocery store in the early 1930's, it's always some type of grocery store," Adams said. "But over the years it has become more of a convenience store. Adding meats, produce besides your chips and beer, going throughout the year it's been tough."

In 2009, with a grant from the Centers for Disease Control, the county Health Department identified neighborhoods in Omaha that had the highest combination of high risk health factors. J-N-D was in one of these neighborhoods. The health department then zeroed in on the neighborhoods where citizens had to travel over one mile to find healthy food options.

"These grocery stores are using the distribution system they had so if they're using a wholesaler they're continuing to use that wholesaler," said Mary Balluff, chief of Community Health and Nutrition Services at Douglas County Health Department. "What we're trying to do is help them figure out what they have in their store and how they can offer different products. In most cases they can get it from wholesaler, the problem is that there's been no demand for them so it did not fit with their business model."

Ads for beer and cigarettes have been replaced with signs that read "We accept WIC and EBT" and "Welcome to Your Healthy Neighborhood store." Also University of Nebraska extension has come in to provide samples of fresh food options offered in these stores to create a demand.

Yet another challenge: Efforts to provide funding to attack food deserts floundered in the Legislature this year.

So right now despite big national announcements and discussion the fix for food deserts, at least in Nebraska, is being driven at a local level - in both urban and rural communities. The hope: That their turning point isn't a mirage.

NET News

Residents of the northern Nebraska village of Cody have to drive up to 40 miles to get to the nearest grocery store. Two USDA grants are allowing Cody to build a straw bale grocery store.

Click here

for an interactive map of food deserts across the country, with the option to zoom in a state or a city

NET News

J-N-D Grocery in north Omaha is working with the local health department and University of Nebraska Extension to offer customers healthy and nutritious food.

Click here

for an interactive map of food deserts across the country, with the option to zoom in a state or a city



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