San Manuel Miner
Food deserts have been defined as areas that lack adequate access to affordable fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat milk and dairy products, and other foods that make up a healthy diet. This would include access to health food stores, organic and non-GMO (genetically modified organisms) foods. In cities research has shown that food deserts exist in areas where the consumer is one to 10 miles away from a supermarket. For many especially the poor and elderly being able to get to a supermarket can be a problem.
In rural areas such as the Tri-Community a food desert is classified as a county where residents must drive more than 10 miles to a supermarket or super center. Twenty percent of rural counties in the United States are considered food deserts including parts of Pinal County. Nearly 14 percent of Arizonans live in food deserts. Add to that the second highest poverty level in the United States (one in five Arizonans live under the poverty level) and eating healthy for the poor and elderly presents a number of challenges.
Lack of access and affordability to a variety of healthy food and fresh fruits and vegetables is a bigger problem in rural communities such as ours that lack a mass transit system. There are many people in the area living at or below the poverty level. Some of these families do not have a vehicle or someone that can drive them. A number of senior citizens no longer drive long distances or at all due to age and physical disabilities. If you live in the Tri-Community the nearest supermarket is Bashas’ located in Catalina. This is approximately a 28-mile one way drive from either Mammoth or San Manuel and 16 miles from Oracle. For those of us who still drive regularly, this does not present a problem, but for the poor and elderly it is a challenge and a burden.
The town of Oracle is lucky to have a market. This hometown market provides some produce, low fat dairy products, whole grain breads, organic eggs and quality meats but realistically because of the small volume that they can purchase they cannot provide the quantity or variety of fresh produce or healthier foods that a supermarket or health food store can. In San Manuel and Mammoth some of the small convenience markets are trying to carry produce but it is not much of a variety and costs more. These markets are trying and we need to support them and buy locally as often as we can. There are some farmers markets springing up and they are carrying fresh produce including organically grown vegetables at affordable prices. However, they are not open every day and the supply is very limited.
Recent studies have shown a correlation between food availability and health. The elderly can have their health put at risk because of the lack of availability of a reliable and adequate source of fresh fruits and vegetables. The elderly have higher nutrient needs and cannot tolerate the higher salt and sugar content of processed foods. If they are already suffering from diabetes or chronic illnesses, these can be exacerbated by limited food choices. The health of many adults and children in the area is at risk. Inadequate diets are leading to an increase in obesity and related health problems such as diabetes and high blood pressure.
As you can see, living in a food desert especially in a rural area can be problematic. It can also impact our health. The problems of food deserts are being researched and programs are being initiated by the government and others to provide solutions to the challenges of living in a rural food desert.