Michigan food deserts continue to impact residents

Fresh fruits and vegetables are popping up at local farmer’s markets across Michigan, but in some parts of the state, good food is hard to find.

The term food desert is used to describe areas with little or no access to affordable and nutritious food. Places, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, like Saginaw and Cadillac.

Mari Gallagher is President of the National Center for Public Research.

She has spent time researching food deserts in both rural and urban places, including metro Detroit, at what she calls the “block level”.

Gallagher says the problems impacting rural areas differ from those seen in the city.

“Rural areas have unique challenges,” Gallagher said, “Many of these rural areas like the ones in Michigan long ago were places where people grew their own food or there were local farms where people actually developed crops that also went into the local market.

People had victory gardens, and they canned sometimes they hunted or they fished so they had different types of local food access in addition to what you could buy at the grocery store”.

But, the landscape of food has been changing and Gallagher says less food is now being grown locally.

“Overtime, farms have been consolidated they’ve been kind of geared more toward commodity crops. I’m not saying that’s inherently bad but I’m just saying that that’s been happening at the same time some of these small town mainstreets have suffered. Some of the grocery stores have closed and they have to some degree been replaced by convenience stores.”

Just identifying food deserts can be problematic in its own right. Gallagher says some locations identified as grocery stores are really nothing more than liquor stores.

Her research has shown that distance from quality food can cause health problems from birth. For example, when a woman is half a mile from a good food source…

“…Pregnant women are ten percent more likely to have a baby born overweight. And at a mile that increases to 20 percent,” Gallagher said.

Dawn Earnesty has seen some of these problems first hand. She’s an educator who deals with nutrition programs at Michigan State University’s extension office in Saginaw.

But she says new programs are starting to target people who live in food deserts.

“Specifically in Saginaw we’ve seen an increase in focus on community programs that help to eliminate the disparities related to food desert areas,”Earnesty said, “Specifically those coalitions are working towards initiatives that focus on either bringing sources of fresh or other sources of food to the food desert areas. But also looking for opportunities in which the food desert areas can actually have their own source of food.”

Earnesty says Saginaw is using some new and different ways to get fresh food to residents.One example involves having mini markets where farm vendors set up shop just outside of the health department.

“The Saginaw Public Health Department is having two days in which WIC mothers will have access to shop right there at the health department,” Earnesty said, “So vendors are coming and setting up a mini market so that when mothers with children are there, they are able to redeem their project fresh vouchers right then and there for the fresh fruits and vegetables”.

Mari Gallagher said such programs are definitely having a positive impact and that even in areas where no such initiatives exist, residents can still make a difference.

“I think sometimes people feel like problems are so much bigger than them and that solutions are beyond their grasp but that’s actually not true. I think everyone can take charge of their own life,” Gallagher said.

That can be as simple as planting a small plot of vegetables, joining with neighbors to create a community garden, or working with community organizations to launch a farmers market.

Mari Gallagher’s Tedx Food Desert talk

USDA Food Access Atlas