By DOUG GRAVES
COLUMBUS, Ohio — Food deserts are normally thought of as low-income, blighted areas of a city with little or no access to fresh, reasonably priced fruits and vegetables. But Ohio State University Community Development specialist Tom Blaine says rural areas, despite their open spaces and fertile soil, can be food deserts as well.
Blaine worked with two student interns to examine this dilemma, to learn more about people who live in these rural food deserts and how they access fresh produce.
“Participants in our study lived an average of 11 miles from a grocery store,” he said. “Typically in more populated areas, you have a grocery store within a half-mile or mile. For most people in Ohio, 11 miles from a grocery store would be a very long way.”
According to USDA statistics, rural residents who live at least 10 miles from a grocery store live in these so-called food deserts. The reports indicate a 22-mile round trip equates to an average transportation expense of $735 a year.
Blaine’s study involved phone interviews with 90 residents along the border of Wayne and Holmes counties in Ohio to determine how they acquire, produce and consume fresh fruits and vegetables and to gather demographic information.
“The lack of opportunity to buy fresh fruits and vegetables in rural areas can be an important barrier to a healthy diet, just it is in the city,” he said. “Many of us might assume that there is a lot of produce out there, but that’s not necessarily true.
“Most agriculture production is not fresh product, it’s grain and livestock. We wanted to study these people who live in rural areas more closely to see how they operate, and what steps they take in getting fresh fruit and vegetables.”
Blaine and his partners in this effort (Sarah and Michael Pinkham) found 74 percent of respondents have a garden that allows them to grow their own produce and 28 percent of the households grow at least one-third of their produce. They also learned the elderly are least likely to have a garden, and most of this group doesn’t garden due to health reasons.
“The elderly don’t have the mobility or endurance to get out and work the garden,” Blaine said.
In other findings, those in the high-income group are less likely to have a garden because of longer work hours. They also learned people who eat more produce are more likely to have a garden and households with more people are more likely to have a garden.
“When you get out and garden, you’re exercising and moving,” Blaine said. “Larger families need more food in the house, and with additional labor in the house it helps them keep the garden up. It’s a double-winner for people.