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Food deserts leave lasting impact on local community health

Fast facts on food deserts and how they impact our communities. Source: USDA, graphic by Maria Dickson/WUFT News
Fast facts on food deserts and how they impact our communities. Source: USDA, graphic by Maria Dickson/WUFT News

Imagine having to walk more than 20 minutes to buy some fruit. This is the reality of nearly 40% of the U.S. population living in food deserts.

As currently defined by the United States Department of Agriculture, a food desert is an urban area where you have to travel more than 1 mile to find a grocery store that sells healthy food. And while the term "desert" implies someone wandering through a barren landscape, food deserts are neighborhoods where socially disadvantaged people live with little access to fresh, healthy produce.

“Because of physical barriers, monetary barriers, social barriers, people in food deserts are unable to acquire nutritious food and are stuck eating foods that aren't as nutritious like fast food,” said Dani Ironspoon, who has a doctorate in Public Health.

In many of these places, there are no supermarkets, nor are there any other types of shops where you can buy fruit, vegetables or fish. Micanopy seems to be one of them, according to Micanopy resident Shawna Tramonatno.

“Living in Micanopy is almost 30 minutes to any decent produce,” she said.

Nathaniel Ray has been living in Micanopy for three years, and he said he has to drive 15 minutes from where he lives to get to the closest Publix in Gainesville.

“There are some restaurants here. But for people that are trying to save money or make their own food, there's no, there's nothing here. There's like three gas stations where you can get canned stuff and maybe like eggs and milk,” Ray said.

According to Ray, Micanopy residents can buy local eggs from people who have chickens in their yard.

“There's some farms here and there. But it's not like you have to really, like go out of your way to look for sources for things,” Ray said.

Micanopy is not the only rural community to go through this food desert. Camesha Tate worked in Brooker and felt like it needed more fresh food.

“I used to work in Brooker and lived in Alachua, and I feel like there are some serious missed areas. I feel as though 441 should have more fresh foods available,” Tate said. “College students are inundated with excess, and the rest of the city lives differently, depending upon their socioeconomic status. Though affordable living is almost a joke here for a lot of people. I can only imagine how scarce things are past exit 382.”

What abounds in these areas are fast food stores or convenience stores, where most foods are ultra-processed and high in unsaturated fat, salt and sugar.

As a person who studied public health, Ironspoon said the food desert affects people's health, too.

“People who are struggling economically may not be able to buy fresh vegetables, fresh fish, meat and chicken. And instead they might be buying fish sticks, which aren't horrible, but they're not as good for you. And canned vegetables because they're much cheaper but they're higher in salts,” Ironspoon said.

This influences the ability to choose and access healthy food, and translates into communities with a higher prevalence of obesity, diabetes or cardiovascular disease, according to Ironspoon.

This panorama becomes even more complicated if one takes into account the rise in the prices of basic food items, such as eggs and milk, as well as the constant increase in the price of gasoline.

“If the cost of gasoline goes up, a family has to go miles and miles to pick up their food. This is going to affect them and maybe they are not going to go as often, or they are going to reduce the amount of food they can buy because they have to pay for gasoline,” Ironspoon said.

Brian Jones is working on a business to try to solve this problem locally.

“The reason why I wanted to do this was essentially because of the issues of getting fresh in the community,” Jones said. “But the general idea would be to help provide more sustainable produce, and greens and fruits.”

Food deserts cause economic issues in families, too.

Jones' company is Terra Harvest. He says the company will eventually be a urbanized aeroponics company that will produce a variety of greens, fruits, micro greens and mushrooms.

“I recently tried to get funding, but with most business loans you need sizable capital for the loan to be secured. So I have decided to start super small to gain traction to make it work,” Jones said.

Maria is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.