Driving down a two-lane highway in rural Nebraska last spring, I passed a Native American man riding an old bicycle toward the nearby Omaha Indian Reservation. We were at least seven miles from the nearest town, and he had four grocery bags bulging with food slung over his handlebars as he worked to climb a hill. I’ll bet a week’s worth of groceries that he wasn’t biking for the exercise.
This is what a food desert looks like in rural America.
The term “food desert” has gained a lot of attention in the media in the last several years (much to the chagrin of people who like deserts and don’t appreciate the negative connotation). I’ve also heard “food vacuum” and “area of low food access,” but nothing gives the mental picture of what it’s like to live in a place with no food like “food desert.”
When most people hear “food desert,” they think of places like West Oakland, Detroit, or inner-city Chicago. Personally, I think of places like Harrison, a Nebraska town of 279 people. A resident of Harrison called me for help several months ago because the owners of their local grocery store have gotten sick and need to sell or shut down. If they close, it’s a 50 mile drive to the next nearest grocery store. I’ve had conversations with members of Native American nations who talk about driving 110 miles through a mountain pass to get to their nearest town.
The paradox of our unhealthy food system is that many rural towns lack healthy food access, even as the food we eat is grown in rural places. To put it simply, our current food system is failing the very communities that grow our food.
I consider myself very lucky when it comes to food. I have land on which I can grow vegetables and raise animals, and time to tend them. There’s a grocery store in my town, and I have a good job that allows me to afford to buy what I can’t grow or process myself. I do have an “out of town grocery list” for exotic staples — wasabi, coconut milk, organic anything — but I can certainly live without those things if I needed to.
So how is it possible that people in farm country have a hard time finding food? In short, it’s complicated.