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Coronavirus causing more issues for people in food deserts

Lauri Andress, assistant professor at the West Virginia University School of Public Health. (Photo Provided)

CHARLESTON — For people looking for fresh food, especially beef, pork and chicken, sometimes the shelves have been bare at the grocery store.

But for people living in food deserts, food supply issues are becoming even more a problem.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines a food desert as an area lacking assess to healthy-food options measured by distance to one or more grocery stores, as well as a person’s ability to access those food options, transportation and the average income of an area.

For people in food deserts, driving to the next county to shop for groceries is already a burden. That burden becomes even greater for people making minimum wage, seniors on fixed income or families that can’t afford a car. Add the uncertainty of finding fresh and healthy food due to others hoarding supplies and the problem becomes greater.

According to 2015 data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 13.41 percent of the state population lives in U.S. Census tracts with low income and low access to healthy food. That’s nearly 250,000 people. That’s also more than the U.S. average of 12.8 percent. West Virginia ranked in the bottom 10 of states.

(Map Author: Thomson Gross, Food Justice Lab at WVU)

The coronavirus pandemic is bringing food desert issues to light, Lauri Andress, assistant professor at the West Virginia University School of Public Health, said. She has been studying the issue since 2013.

“It is particularly hard for low-wealth communities in food deserts in West Virginia to get food on a regular basis,” Andress said. “They have to contend with transportation problems and income problems, relying on family and friends to get to sources of nutritious, affordable food. That happens on a regular basis in food deserts in West Virginia.”

Now with the coronavirus — also called COVID-19 — causing people to buy up food, social distancing requirements causing lines at grocery stores and making transportation in large groups difficult, and the increasing economic uncertainty with some people being furloughed, Andress said food insecurity becomes a greater problem.

“With the virus and the kinds of social distancing and regulations that we’ve put into place and issues with businesses shutting down and not continuing to be sources of employment for people, this can only make the situation worse in food deserts, particularly for vulnerable populations,” Andress said. “We have to be very concerned and vigilant about their welfare with regard to food access.”

Residents are under a stay-at-home executive order except for outdoor activity, traveling to work at essential businesses, medical care, groceries and supplies. People are ordered to maintain 6 feet of distance from others, avoid crowds of 10 or more, wash hands, cover coughs, avoid touching the face and to stay home as much as possible. Seven counties are under stricter orders to avoid crowds of five, with health departments ordered to enforce social distancing requirements in grocery and convenience stores.

Andress said these restrictions might make it harder for people relying on others for transportation to and from grocery stores

“It creates a very interesting situation in terms of sheltering and protecting one’s self from the virus, but at the same time having to contend with practices commonly used to secure food on a regular basis in the food deserts,” Andress said. “What we think is going to happen is getting rides with family and friends who would normally assist people in getting to sources of food will decrease. The opportunities for those kinds of social interactions will go down.”

The state has been working to make sure people have access to food during the stay-at-home executive order signed by Gov. Jim Justice more than two weeks ago. The West Virginia National Guard has been assisting the Mountaineer Food Bank in Gassaway and the Facing Hunger Food Bank in Huntington. Between both, they serve all 55 counties in West Virginia providing food to local pantries, shelters, backpack programs for school children, and seniors.

Earlier this week, the National Guard packed 423 family boxes at the Facing Hunger Food Bank and 1,363 meals at the Mountaineer Food Bank. Since the start of the state of emergency, the Guard has packed and distributed more than 60,000 meals for families in need. The West Virginia Department of Education announced last week that more than 1 million meals have been provided to students by all 55 counties by distributing multi-day meal packs once or twice a week.

Aandress applauded these efforts to provide some level of food security during the coronavirus pandemic. Still, Andress said the state needs to develop a long-term strategy for ensuring people in low-wealth and low-food access areas can tap into more sources of fresh and nutritious food.

“Those are all emergency stop-gap provisions; we’re very good at that as a society. We address these kinds of problems with short-term solutions,” Andress said. “We should take a pause and think about longer-term structural systems. That’s where we lose momentum. Are we actually going to think about how to pull different systems together and create opportunities for different ways to address our food deserts? That is a question and we’ve not done so well at those kinds of systems and structural interventions.”

Last December, public policy experts and advocates came together for the 2019 West Virginia Food Desert Summit in Bridgeport. One of the ideas that came out of the conference was a food desert venture development. The organization would assist vendors or entrepreneurs to partner with farmers to bring in fresh produce to food deserts and create new retail opportunities.

“This venture development organization would help them think about how to get that off the ground,” Andress said. “We are continuing to meet around this idea…so that we can think about a longer-term strategy to address food deserts in West Virginia. We’ll be pursuing that over the summer time.”

Steven Allen Adams can be reached at sadams@newsandsentinel.com.

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