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Study: 14% of Arizonans live in 'food deserts'

Lack of public transit, grocery stores leave rural residents in dead zone

WASHINGTON — There’s nothing simple about Phoenix resident Alex Turley’s simple trip to the grocery store to buy the basics.

He might walk more than a mile in triple-digit temperatures so that he can catch the light rail, bus or rent a Zipcar.

From there, it’s about a 15-minute mass-transit ride to the grocery store, which limits what he can get — if he buys too much, it could prove difficult to carry it all home in the heat.

“I honestly go through periods where I don’t have a lot of food because it’s a pain,” said Turley, 29, the night assistant manager at the Wyndham Hotel in downtown Phoenix.

He is among the 13.6 percent of Arizonans who live in a “food desert,” a low-income area with low access to a grocery store, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture study.

Arizona far exceeds the national average of 4.8 percent of people in food deserts, according to the report from Agriculture’s Economic Research Service. The report also said that 10.3 percent of Arizona’s housing units are in food deserts, compared to the national average of 2.2 percent of homes.

The report is based on census tracts and 2000 U.S. Census numbers. Authors said they expect the situation might be worse when they update the report with 2005 Census numbers. Michele Ver Ploeg, an economist with ERS, believes Arizona will be worse off when numbers are updated because of the economic crisis.

“Arizona was especially hard hit,” said Ver Ploeg. “I would expect that all over as budgets got worse ... stores were going out of business.”

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While rural areas have typically been associated with food deserts, the report tells another story: About 75 percent of food-desert tracts are urban and 25 percent are rural. People who live more than a mile from a grocery in a city may be in a food desert; the distance increases to 10 miles in the country.

A lack of grocery stores and inadequate public transportation — in rural and urban areas — leaves many food-desert communities dependent for basic needs on convenience stores, which tend to be more expensive than full-service groceries.

Turley said he is more focused on buying food each day than buying a healthy meal, depending on fast food, restaurants and his job to eat.

“Unfortunately, my diet has suffered quite a bit because the closest thing for me is Circle K,” Turley said. “I am lucky I do get a meal on shift. Yesterday I had a burrito at Taco Bell and my shift meal.”

The difficulties can be even more pronounced in rural areas.

“The two miles in the city can sometimes grow to 10 miles in rural areas,” said Brian Simpson, a spokesman for the Arizona Association of Food Banks.

“People don’t get that if you are a struggling or low-income, all of the sudden two miles, especially in the heat of summer, is a big deal,” he said.

And even in poor, rural communities with access to a grocery, the foods being offered are not always healthy, critics say.

Debra Emmanuelle, who helped found the Verde Food Council near Sedona in 2009, describes grocery stores there greeting customers with tubs of lard, and produce sections barren of anything green.

“At least 85 percent of the food in the grocery store is not nutritious, it is filler food and people have forgotten that,” Emmanuelle said.

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She said that lack of nutritious food is part of the reason for an “epidemic” of obesity and diabetes in the Northern Arizona area she serves. Residents there know it is a problem, but they have not changed their diets, she said, “because they do not know how, it (the food offered at the grocery) is just what’s available.”

As in the city, she said convenience stores end up being the only grocery store in poor rural areas.

Convenience stores are trying to improve their offerings, said an industry official, but they are simply not set up to match the offerings of a full-service grocery.

“I noticed this year everyone is selling fresh fruits and vegetables,” said Jeff Lenard, spokesman for the National Association of Convenience and Fuel Retailing. “We have come a long way with food and we still have a long way to go.”

For Turley, the Circle K at Fillmore Street and First Avenue in Phoenix lives up to its name: It’s convenient.

He could go to the Phoenix Public Market, a community non-profit dedicated to increasing access to healthy food. It’s just a block farther than Circle K, but he said its organic goods and locally farmed foods are often out of his budget.

“They do have everything you need, but do I want to spend?” Turley asked.

But going to the grocery is like planning a safari. Getting off at 7 a.m. from an all-night shift and facing the desert sun, he has to plan everything from what he will eat to how much he can fit in his reusable shopping bags.

So he often defaults to Circle K. It is quick and easy — and at least now they have a few more healthy options.

“They sell minimal fruit and you can buy bananas really cheap ... it’s mostly processed,” said Turley. “There is not a healthy choices section or anything.”

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“People don’t get that if you are a struggling or low-income, all of the sudden two miles, especially in the heat of summer, is a big deal.”

— Brian Simpson, a spokesman for the Arizona Association of Food Banks

Additional challenges getting services

Getting to the grocery is just one challenge for Arizona’s “food desert” poor, who have seen some state services cut as demand for services is increasing.

Budget cuts have forced the Arizona Department of Economic Security to close 42 offices around the state since 2009, leaving the remaining 144 offices to serve much larger areas.

The 2009 budget also caused the Department of Health Services to eliminate a program that had provided emergency food boxes to about 12,000 seniors in the state.

And the number of people enrolled in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — the program formerly known as food stamps — has grown by 32,000 since May 2010, to more than 1 million today.

While there have been no cuts to direct food-assistance benefits, like SNAP or the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program, state officials concede that the lowered level of services is a challenge for some.

“You have to spread the pain as broadly as you can,” said Steve Meissner, spokesman for the Department of Economic Security. “Those are tough choices you have to make. These are the reality of the tough choices that politicians talk about.”

Meissner said the reductions in programs and office locations have forced the agency to become more efficient in delivering services. Many applications for assistance are now online and or can be completed over the phone, for example.

But advocates say that can pose a challenge for low-income families who may not have a computer or a phone.

“Does it mean some (people in) rural areas have to travel?” Meissner asked. “Yes it does, but we are also doing the best at continuing services.”

He said that most of the office closures were in urban areas: 13 rural offices closed and 29 offices in metro areas were shuttered.

But an official with the Arizona Community Action Association stressed that office closures in rural areas make it harder for people to file for services, regardless of online options.

“In rural areas it (access) is an issue people don’t think of,” said Katie Kahle, program manager for ACAA. “Bigger issues are that there are no services to help them get to healthy food sources.”

Officials with the state health department say that while they have begun to look at ways to improve access to healthy food, they face the same budget challenges.

Sharon Sass, registered dietitian with the department, voiced concern for rural communities with low access to groceries and social services. But she said there are programs, most of which are federally funded, aimed at shoring up food-access issues.

In October 2009, for example, the health department used about $9 million in federal funds to begin providing fresh fruit and vegetable vouchers to WIC participants, in addition to other services. The program offers vouchers worth $6 to $12 every month to eligible families to buy fresh fruits and vegetables, Sass said.

“Particularly in rural areas and the reservations, accessing healthy food is an issue,” Sass said.

What makes a food desert?

A food desert is a low-income area with low access to a grocery.

To qualify as a “low-income community,” a census tract must have either: – A poverty rate of 20 percent or higher or a median family income at or below 80 percent of the area’s median family income;

To qualify as a “low-access community”:

  • At least 500 people and/or at least 33 percent of the census tract’s population must reside more than one mile from a supermarket or large grocery store in urban areas.
  • At least 500 people and/or at least 33 percent of the census tract’s population must reside more than 10 miles from a supermarket or large grocery store in rural areas.