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What is a Food Desert?

Posted by on March 1, 2012

infographic courtesy of Argus Leader

A question worth asking. Wikipedia states: A food desert is any area in the industrialized world where healthful, affordable food is difficult to obtain. Before you get fired up the USDA determined that Mitchell, SD is not a food desert. We have two thriving grocery stores (County Fair & Coborns), Wal-Mart, and niche’ stores like Prairie Town to fill in the gaps. In the summers, just head over to the parking lot on 5th & Main on a Saturday morning and shop at the Farmers’ Market. Our Community Garden plots, which doubled recently has a waiting list before it really even opens to the public. Drive around town one summer afternoon and you will see yard gardens in a variety of forms. Looking into the big picture glass, we are doing pretty well here in Mitchell.

So why did the Mitchell Food Pantry serve over 6,000 residents, handing out over 10,000 bags of groceries in 2011? In South Dakota 1 in 8 residents use SNAP (formerly known as Food Stamps) and 1 in 7 residents live at or below the poverty line. In South Dakota, convenience stores make up 1/3 of SNAP purchases, and 39 Dollar stores currently accept SNAP (compared to 0 in 2005).  According to the F as in Fat Report, the higher your income the lower your chance for obesity. Let’s analyze the data shall we?

I am currently reading a book titled The American Way of Eating by Tracie McMillan. Tracie has some amazing finds when she went undercover to write this book. A synopsis of her findings can be found in this Huffington Post piece. I will relay some of that information here. According to a recent study, 85% of low-income families said eating healthier was a priority. So what’s the problem? Poor people should just make it a priority. If it were only that simple. The cost of tomatoes do not go up or down based on your income level. Those tomatoes cost the same for someone making $5,000 a year or someone making $500,000 a year. The Bureau of Labor shows that in 2010 American with incomes under $35,000 spent 16-35% of their income on food, while those with incomes $70,000 or more spent 8%. I’m not advocating we all have a tattoo of our income levels so that we can get appropriate pricing at the store, but if you spent a higher majority of your income on someone you want the most bang for your buck. As Americans we have learned to measure that bang with quantity and not quality.

So how we do we fix this issue? We currently have a food system that pours money into producing commodities that produce higher amounts of shelf stable foods. 42% of the Farm Bill subsidies went to commodity crops vs. 5% that went to fruits and vegetables. Some of those commodity crop farmers are our neighbors and friends and we certainly would not want to derail their livelihood, but we have to be realistic. We know eating more fruits and vegetables will make us healthier. There is no hiding or arguing eating more fresh foods and less processed foods will help maintain blood sugars, blood pressure and energy levels. Let me get to the action part. Families that eat dinner together have healthier children, and our children deserve better than the gloom their future appears. You want children with good grades, a healthy self-image, more apt to resist drugs and alcohol, healthier in weight, then turn off the tv and turn on the stove. You are tired from working all day? Get everyone in the kitchen to help. Little ones are great salad washers, older ones can learn simple cooking methods building a sense of “cooking confidence”. When you plant your garden this summer, plant an extra row to donate to the Mitchell Food Pantry and have your children pulling weeds right next to so that when you go as a family to donate they feel pride in what they produced. If you don’t know where to start, start by going to the Time at the Table website. Sign up for a class, get involved, get active and let’s build a community that makes you proud to live in Mitchell, SD.


One Response to What is a Food Desert?

  1. Hillary Shaw

    More on food deserts at