Project works to roll back 'food deserts' in Caldwell County

Mar. 09, 2013 @ 09:22 AM

Walk into a convenience store, and you probably won’t see an apple. And if you do, it will almost certainly cost more than the bag of chips next to it.

Lack of access to fresh, healthy and affordable foods is problem in parts of Caldwell County. Two Caldwell census tracts qualify as “food deserts” – low-income areas where residents don’t have easy access to a supermarket or large grocery store – according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

And even in areas that don’t fall under the food desert umbrella, fatty foods are easier to find than their healthier counterparts.

“If you’re three miles from a grocery store and you look in your refrigerator and say, ‘Oh, I need milk,’ you’re not going to go all the way down to Walmart to get your milk when that’s the only thing you need,” said Brittany Crump, a health educator with the Caldwell County Health Department. “Most likely, you’re going to go to a convenience store to get your milk. If whole milk (rather than reduced-fat milk) is the only thing that convenience store offers, it’s not giving you the choice.”

Crump is working on a project, the Caldwell County Healthy Corner Store Initiative, to combat food insecurity in the area.

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Crump — who’s working on the project as part of her master’s degree work at Lenoir-Rhyne University — defines food deserts a little differently than the USDA. For the purposes of her project, anything outside a three-mile radius from a supermarket or grocery store is classified as a food desert.

In its pilot phase, the project is about figuring out what store owners and customers need. So far, Crump has reached out to owners of convenience stores. Of the 16 she contacted, five responded.

She’s now working with those owners to see why they don’t (or can’t) offer healthier foods. Next, she’ll survey customers to see what they need, what they would buy, and how the initiative can help.

One measure likely to be implemented in each store is a simple red-light, green-light system. Green stickers will indicate go-ahead foods, such as fruits and vegetables. A red sticker means you should stop and think – it’ll be attached to fatty foods like snack cakes and potato chips.

So far, storeowners have been receptive to the changes, Crump said.

“They’ve been very helpful,” she said. “They’re excited about it. They want to offer healthy options.”

About four miles south of Crump’s office in the Caldwell County Social Services suite, another group is working to freshen up the community’s food options.

The school garden at Whitnel Elementary — where students plant, harvest and eat their own fruits and vegetables — is within a USDA-classified food desert.

“We already knew that this was a community that had a lot of needs,” said Darlene Berry, who heads up the gardening program.

The school garden, launched in 2011, was a way to meet the community’s need for fresh, accessible fruits and vegetables.

Whitnel students don’t use tractors or power equipment, but that’s about all they’re not involved in, Berry said. On a spring day you might see students planting seeds, tying up tomatoes, harvesting, composting, weeding – or eating a meal fresh from the garden.

The program often gives kids the push they need to try new foods, and incorporate them into their diets at home, Berry said.

It’s that type of generational change that people like Berry and Crump are working to achieve.

“All these little pieces are what changes a community,” Berry said. “It’s exciting to see.”