How To Eat In A Food Desert

The term 'food desert' keeps springing up lately. According to the USDA, a food desert is anywhere that is more than one mile (in the city) or ten miles (in rural areas) without a supermarket or other whole food retailer like farmers' markets or food coops.

But there's compelling evidence that despite the USDA pumping half a billion dollars into programs to decrease food deserts, it turns out that given a choice, people still eat junk food as opposed to whole foods. As Reason Magazine said in this article, "You can lead human beings to Whole Foods, but you can't make them buy organic kale there."

Technically, Greg and I live in a food desert. The nearest grocery store is twenty minutes away by car, thirty minutes if I go to my preferred grocery store. It's an inconvenience, but I hardly feel neglected. After all, we chose to live out in the boonies. A lack of grocery stores (or any stores for that matter) is in an ironic twist, the reason we chose this location.

Less retail means less population density. I like my space. I like people too. But I don't like them in my space. :D

Still that leaves us in a lurch when it comes to food shopping. During severe weather, impassable roads, or a broken car, we can be trapped at home.

There are many ways to stay ahead of the rat race though.

Grow Your Own: This isn't for everyone. It takes practice, and lots of work. It's a great feeling knowing you can grow your own food, but it's not easy. In the early days of learning how to grow food, I think we would've starved if we had relied on our own efforts. All hail the successful pioneers! The bravest people who ever lived.

Make Pilgrimages: Aside from growing our own produce (and raising our own meat), we try to grocery shop once a week for food that we either can't grow or won't grow where we live. For example, we don't raise cows, so beef has to be bought. I used to limit our shopping to every two weeks or longer, but I like going out just to see how the rest of the world is doing.

Do The COOP: There are food coops everywhere. Just Google for the nearest one. You never really know what you'll get, but you're sure to get a good assortment.

Do Farmer's Markets: This to me has the same problem as grocery stores. Most farmer's markets are not close or convenient. and most are seasonal, but if you can hitch a ride with a neighbor, it's worth it.

Speaking of Neighbors: We have the best neighbors. A few regularly check on us if we've had bad weather that keeps most people housebound. Everyone reciprocates too. If the roads are flooded, and one of us is going to make the trek to the outside world, we call around to see if anyone needs anything while we're out.

Grocery Delivery: This is becoming more and more common. I haven't quite decided if that's a good thing. I know it's not for me. I like choosing my own produce. It's definitely more expensive.

Make Your Work Commute Do Double Duty: If you're going to work anyway, include your grocery shopping on your way home. Saves time and money if you don't have to make a special trip.

Buy In Bulk: I know people think I'm crazy to keep such an overly stocked pantry, but I hate, hate, hate having to run out of ingredients. My motto is "One to serve, one in reserve".

Learn To Cook Real Food: Don't give me that face! You are talking to someone who dislikes cooking intensely. If I can suck it up, so can you. Besides, once you get the hang of it, you're going to find your cooking is way superior to all that processed stuff. Trust me on this. If you cook, you're automatically ahead of the pack in terms of saving money and eating better to boot.

Learn To Preserve Your Food: As long as you're cooking, you might as well try preserving some food. Prepare whole meals and freeze them, make jams, pickle or ferment food, make dried jerky, or bake and freeze your buns. Time savers all.

Food deserts are real, but they're not the real problem. The real problem is that even when given a choice we like to fall back on processed food. So first, let's get our priorities in order. Let's relearn to eat whole foods like our parents and grandparents ate (and at one time taught us to eat).

Do you live in a food desert? When do you do most of your grocery shopping? How often do you shop?


B.E. Sanderson said…
Food desert? I hadn't heard that one yet. Sounds like another case of someone trying to stir up trouble where there isn't any. I would venture that the majority of Americans have access to food, even if they might have to go out of their way a little. Our closest grocery store is about 20 miles and takes me a half hour to get there. I wouldn't consider that a desert because I have a car. Last I knew, the majority of us in rural areas have cars. City folk who don't have cars have public transportation.

As for fresh, 'whole foods' versus processed, I think it's less a matter of availability than a matter of choice. Everywhere I've lived - cities and rural in 6 different states - has had some kind of store nearby that carried fresh produce. But when you have the choice of fresh veggies or cheese puffs, most people pick the cheese puffs. They're infinitely yummier. I know when I'm looking for a snack, I don't reach for the baby carrots when there's a bag of nacho chips available.

I shop every 7-10 days, depending on what we've run out of since my last trip. Cat food is the main thing. Hubs and I can get by without stuffs, but if the cat runs out of Fancy Feast, it's a major calamity. Here, I watch the weather like a hawk. If it looks like it's going to be bad, I plan ahead and hit the stores before the weather strikes.
Carole West said…
I haven't heard this term before but you caught my interest. We're currently on a all protein diet and it's given me a new mindset towards eating. I kept reading at my age you have to increase protein to decrease and lose the weight gain. Anyways this meant a huge shift because it's bascially no carbs and no sugar. I'm just a few weeks into it and I already feel better. More energy, great mood and the pounds are finally coming off. Because of this I'm starting to rethink my future garden plans because there are several things that I just don't want to eat anymore that are referred as real food.

Now we're trying to figure out where our home will be after we finish quail grove. This is another challenge as we'll probably go deeper into seclusion so we can continue to enjoy hunting and fishing. Which means it won't matter to us how far the grocery store is because if we can make the transition we'll be able to raise, grow and hunt the majority of our food which is pretty fantastic. Great read found this very interesting.
I like to stock up on things that I know won't go bad at all - paper goods, etc - or at least not for a very long time. My husband doesn't necessarily agree, but I use his love of Buy 1 Get 1 Free deals and coupons to get my way. :)
jacabur1 said…
My favorite comments are embedded in these 4 sentences Maria.

"Less retail means less population density. I like my space. I like people too. But I don’t like them in my space."
We feel the same which is why living where we are is so nice, uninhabitable land on both sides of our property, railroad in front of us across from the road we live off of and a drop-off behind our land that leads into another pasture to the Colorado River.

"Food desert" sort of as we do live away from grocery stores, and any others as well but oh so "private" with no neighbors within 4 or 5 acres on one side and maybe 3 acres on the other.

Karl goes once a week to grocery shop and I hit online shopping with free delivery from WalMart and Amazon as we need non-food items.
Maria Zannini said…
BE: In 2011 the Obama administration wanted to eliminate food deserts within seven years and make whole food accessible to us 'desert dwellers'. The government spent half a billion dollars and it turned out to be futile because you can't force people to eat healthier.

Food desert is a trendy term imo. They claim it mostly affects poor people without transportation. But I have to ask, just how many people fall into this situation? If you're poor without transportation, how are you living day to day anyway? This didn't just happen, you know. And if you're poor but working, you must pass a grocery store somewhere along your commute.
Maria Zannini said…
Carole: It's getting harder and harder to find a secluded homestead. I've always wanted a place with a pond.
Maria Zannini said…
Madeline: It's only common sense to stock up on goods that won't go bad. It only goes up in price. --which is why I get sticker shock every time I have to replenish my stores. LOL!
Maria Zannini said…
Jackie: I suppose some people like being close to others but I lived that rat race growing up. I always felt suffocated living in Chicago. Hard as it was to start over and not have any family around me, it was worth it to have all the space and privacy I have now.
lynnviehl said…
I'd never heard of a food desert until this morning -- although at first I read it as food *dessert*, ha. We're ten minutes from a grocery store, so I can't claim to be in one. Retail, medical service and restaurant deserts converge here, however. For example, I had to drive an hour to get an x-ray. My crew's favorite restaurants are all 45 minutes to an hour away in the city, too. The one dinky mall that is closest -- twenty minutes away -- is half-empty now as it's dying a slow retail death.

I shop for food once a week if I must, every other week if I can. It's easier now that we're empty nesters. Despite having the grocery store we also try to buy from our local farms and coops whenever possible. The veggies and fruits are so fresh and delicious, and our dollars go directly to our neighbors rather than some anonymous corporation.
Maria Zannini said…
re: and our dollars go directly to our neighbors rather than some anonymous corporation.

That's a very good point.I'd much rather support local farmers instead of some mega farm organization where quality (and ethics) could be compromised.
Jenny Schwartz said…
It's similar in Australia. People undernourished in a country where we should be able to feed everyone. I don't think there's an easy solution. I wish there was. I miss the old cafeterias where people could get cheap, healthy meals rather than fast food.
Maria Zannini said…
Jenny: There are a couple big name cafeterias in the States that have good whole foods, but the prices are crazy high. Every once in a while we splurge when we can find some old people coupons. We do have an old fashioned diner nearby that has pretty good food though, and fairly reasonable.
Michael Keyton said…
Monmouthshire/Herefordshire is very much a food oasis. Ref your preference for space, i was put in mind of Natty Bumpo in Fenimore Cooper's 'The Plainsman'. He wandered west from New England because he found it too crowded with a population density of 1:800 miles :)
Maria Zannini said…
Mike: I'm a little more forgiving than Natty Bumpo.
Speaking as someone who grew up in a food desert, I found the way this article was written...interesting.

While the term, food desert, is new for some, it was the norm for some of us as well, those in urban and rural settings. As I experienced, those in more rural settings grew some of the vegetables they could on the land they owned. Those in urban settings were surrounded with convenience and liquor stores in walking distance. If you had no transportation of your own, you were reliant upon public transportation, the routes they followed, and what you can both afford to buy and "afford" to carry (the wear and tear of carrying bags of food over distance).

Re: You can lead people to Whole Foods, but you can't make them buy organic kale.

I laughed out loud when I read that. While the article briefly touched on price, it didn't give it nearly the stature of impact on this situation. Given the choice of working from 8 am to 5 pm, taking the bus or train to and from work so there is a commute involved, and then going to Whole Foods to buy $50 worth of food to feed your family for two days, or stop at the supermarket where you can buy $50 work of food to feed your family for a week, yes, it makes sense to go to the supermarket.

But I digress...I'm in a position now where, thanks to an initiative to expand awareness of eating healthier, I can afford some of the options available.
distance wise I live in a food dessert as well. but gas dessert is more of a iissue, they brought in new gas pump rules to bring everything up to ode and we lost so many gas statioms in so many of the small local towns, I have to drive 20 plus minutes in the best direction to get to one and 30 min in another..

we have heard about food desserts in our country for years now.. and different areas have different issues... but I hve lived in a place that all fresh came by truck and during spring break up and fall freeze up.. we the whole town for 3 weeks ish.. had no extra deliveries made.. you plan ahead and get used to empty shelves

Then I spent 5 years in a fly in fly out only.. once a year shipping container of food for the year that came by sea and man did that take planning.. and made you learn to live without fresh.. if you can not grow it under grow lights, sprout it, hunt it, the olds where it was not gong to be rresh food, it going to be canned or dried and dried is lighter then canned..

I still have trends I do know from living that way..
Maria Zannini said…
Angela: I'm not a Whole Foods fan. I'm glad they have healthier options but their prices are insane.

They do carry items I might not normally see but many times an ethnic grocery store will have the same things at much lower prices.
Maria Zannini said…
Val: In Texas you can't help but run into a gas station. There are way too many.

I don't know that I can handle once a year shopping. The logistics would be astounding.

Every so often I'm reminded how easy we have it when I'm socked with the revelation that one ice storm six hundred miles away is affecting what's on (or not on) my shelves today.

It humbles you and makes you a better shopper.