August 01, 2013

Food deserts, food semideserts, outside the urban world

Many a reader has heard about food deserts. Many a poorer person in a poorer part of a major city has personal experience with them.

Food deserts, for the unfamiliar, are areas that aren't served by full-blown grocery stores. The best available is an overblown convenience store, particular short on fresh fruits and vegetables, and generally on the slim side on less-processed foods in particular, and higher-nutriment, higher-fiber foods in general.

But, there's a problem or two.

One is the idea that every area not a food desert is a food oasis. And that's simply not true. Hence the second phrase in the headline: "Food semideserts." Like the semidesert of West Texas. In short, food deserts should not be viewed as one end of a polarity, versus food oases. It's a continuum of some sort.

The second is the idea, hinted at in the mainstream media, because many of its practitioners of journalism have no experience outside of big city life (whether said experience in the big city includes any time in rundown areas or not), that areas slim on options on commercial grocers are all in urban areas.

That, too, is simply not true.

Without going into details, I live in a medium-rural-density county in east central Texas. It's less than 20,000. The county seat and main site is a shade under 6,000. It's aging, and losing population. It's adjacent to a county with a city of more than 100,000, in a county of 250,000. But, this particular city and county have yet to attract many would-be exurbanites. A lot of the infrastructure in the city is bad. And, it was let get bad too long ago to be easily upgraded to even so-so level.

So, the population continues to decline. Old white retirees don't buy a lot of food. Not-so-old blacks generally have less money for better food. And the newer-arrived among Hispanics often have even less.

Said county isn't alone. I could name you or find you others at least somewhat similar in eastern to central Texas. And, given that this is the more "Southern" part of Texas, I have no doubt that there's plenty of similar counties from here to South Carolina. North to Oklahoma and northeast to Arkansas.

But, back to this county.

We have one full-blown grocery store here in the county seat. One of the two dollar stores has a small refrigerated area. WallyWorld has a modest refrigerated area, in a non Supercenter without a full grocery. The second town in the county has a small, independent grocery.

And that's it.

Now, the full-blown grocery here is part of a chain that covers most the state. It has multiple stores in that county-over small-city metro area. The biggest has half an aisle, both sides, of bulk foods. Weekend cooking demonstrations. Etc., etc.

So, I live in what's not a food desert, but is a food semidesert.

And, yes, here too, prices are higher at the same chain's grocery in the semidesert than the city. And, that's not just for fruits and vegetables. (In fact, they're often priced the same here, just with much less selection.) Rather, it's things like crackers, potato chips, and other house brand stuff.

And, so, at least some level of deprivation from quality grocery shopping goes far beyond urban ghetto and semi-ghetto areas.

But, since, as noted above, major media have little experience with rural areas, they don't even know to think or ask about some of these issues. Also, since rural areas continue to be in decline, it's not an area of major interest for them.

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