Starving for Access: ISU Researcher Studies Food Deserts in Rural Areas

AMES, Iowa - If the only grocery store in town closes, it may also close easy access to affordable and nutritional food. It's a problem often referred to as a "food desert." To address an increase in obesity and chronic disease in some communities, Congress included the issue of food deserts as an area to be studied in the 2008 Farm Bill. In response the U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service (USDA-ERS) asked Lois Wright Morton, Iowa State University professor of sociology, to provide input on how to continue this research. "When we think of food deserts we think about the gaps in the food distribution system," Morton said. "I'm interested in how that distribution affects the health of residents in a given area." The issue, Morton said, is the location of retail food stores as it relates to public and private transportation in both rural and urban areas. Transportation limitations can create food access problems for the elderly and households with limited incomes. "We have vans for medical services, which help people get to their medical appointments," Morton said. "We need to take one step back and look at getting people to the grocery store so they can purchase affordable and nutritious food." A random survey of two low-income counties in Iowa indicated that 11 percent of the residents over 70 relied on others to take them to the store. Fifty percent of the population lived 10 to 12 minutes, traveling one way in a car, from a grocery store and 25 percent lived 25 minutes away. "As long as you are in the golden circle of access you are fine," Morton said. "But that circle looks different if you are on the outer rim and your car doesn't work or you can't afford the gas." Morton presented her research and ideas in October at a USDA-ERS workshop in Washington D.C, "Access to Affordable and Nutritious Food: Understanding Food Deserts." Morton also is advising the Robert Wood Foundation on the development of food desert measures that can be used throughout the United States.