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The rural food desert

(post, Caroline Cummins)

Think fast: Where's the nearest food desert?

The stereotypical food desert is a blighted, impoverished, minority-dense urban neighborhood — West Oakland, Anacostia, great swathes of Detroit. Supermarkets are scarce in these neighborhoods; the most common food sources are convenience stores and fast-food outlets.

But Seattle, that wealthy techie paradise, also suffers from supermarket shortages. In the Seattle neighborhood where I grew up, I can walk fairly easily to fancy restaurants and trendy coffee shops. But I can't walk to a decent grocery store; in fact, it's at least a 20-minute drive, if not more, to get to a supermarket like Whole Foods.

And the nation's rural areas are also typically overlooked as food deserts. On a recent trip to see relatives in eastern North Carolina, we drove for miles down the rural-highway version of those urban food deserts: gas stations, Kangaroo Express mini-marts, junk-food franchises. If the fried chicken and sweet tea on offer at Bojangles are your thing, well, you've got plenty of opportunities to sample them. But grocery stores? Good luck.

[%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="A Paula Deen chocolate cake sold at a North Carolina Walmart, with a shelf life of 10 days."]

The dominant supermarket chains in Carteret County appeared to be the regional Food Lion and the nationally ubiquitous Walmart. On the last day of our visit, on our way to the airport in New Bern, we stopped at a Food Lion to pick up some airplane snacks. I thought perhaps I'd find some rolls or something similar to placate my children, maybe some organic fruit. But after walking the length of the store — twice — I gave up.

The store had a bakery department, plus an aisle with loaves of bread and English muffins and the like. But every item had a list of chemical ingredients so long that, if I peeled off one of the sticker labels, it would cover the back of my hand. A fresh loaf of bread made with, you know, just flour and yeast and water and salt? Haw.

None of the produce seemed to be organic, much less locally grown. (No local beefsteak tomatoes, in rural North Carolina in August? Good grief.) Supposedly Food Lion produces its own line of organic foods, but if they were in that store, I missed 'em. So I settled, regretfully, for a bag of non-organic grapes and a package of conventionally produced string cheese. 

At the checkout, I was startled to see the clerk ring up a "food tax" of 2 percent. Apparently, North Carolina has taxed its residents on food since the 1960s, and the current rate of 2 percent is actually low in comparison with previous rates. (Food-stamp purchases are, mercifully, exempt.)
Washington State, where I grew up, does not tax food purchases. Neither does the state of Oregon, where I currently live. Naïvely, I had assumed that groceries, as an essential staple, were tax-free everywhere. But no. In North Carolina, you get to buy fake food at the supermarket, and pay extra for the privilege.

So it's little wonder that eating well is so hard to do in certain — most? — regions of the country. My aunt in eastern North Carolina has a garden, from which she both cooks excellent homemade food and puts up dozens of preserves and pickles. But a garden only goes so far. It's so much easier, after all, to just get takeout from Smithfield's Chicken ‘N Bar-B-Q, or to buy all your food in plastic clamshells at Walmart. 

Back home, I have a new appreciation for my local grocery stores. My branch of the locally based New Seasons chain, for example, where bread is made fresh daily from whole ingredients and the produce department is heavily seasonal: oranges in winter, stone fruit in summer. My outlet of the Kroger-owned Fred Meyer, which, like every Fred Meyer in Portland, has a hippie ghetto full of decent bread, organic milk, and bulk foods.

And there are other markets opening up near me: the just-opened P's & Q's Market in the Woodlawn neighborhood, the soon-to-open Green Zebra chain.

All of which means that I'm within easy walking, driving, or public-transiting distance of a number of markets that sell real food, not just what Michael Pollan calls '"food-like strangled in plastic wrap. How many of us can do that?

Let's close with the list of ingredients from Walmart's Chocolate Cake With Fudge Icing and Chocolate Shavings — not quite the same as the Paula Deen chocolate pound cake I sampled at a North Carolina dinner party, but pretty darn close:

bq. Sugar, Nonfat Milk, Palm Oil, Enriched Wheat Flour Bleached (Flour, Niacin, Reduced Iron, Thiamine Mononitrate, Riboflavin, Folic Acid), Semi-Sweet Chocolate Flakes (Cocoa Mass, Sugar, Cocoa Butter, Soy Lecithin, Natural Flavor), Whole Eggs, Soybean Oil, Water, Cocoa Processed With Alkali, Whey (Milk), Egg Whites, Corn Starch, Food Starch-Modified, Invert Sugar, Leavening (Baking Soda, Monocalcium Phosphate, Sodium Aluminum Phosphate, Aluminum Sulfate, Sodium Acid Pyrophosphate), Mono & Diglycerides, Salt, Butterfat, Chocolate Liquor, Partially Hydrogenated Vegetable Oil (Soybean And/Or Cottonseed Oil), Propylene Glycol, Mono & Diesters of Fatty Acids, Dark Chocolate Square (Chocolate Liquor, Sugar, Cocoa Butter, Whey, Nonfat Milk, Soya Lecithin \[Emulsifier\], Vanilla Extract), Soy Lecithin, Corn Flour, Dextrose, Polysorbate 60, Soy Flour, Sodium Propionate And Sorbic Acid (As Preservatives), Xanthan Gum, Methylcellulose Gum, Natural And Artificial Flavor, Propylene Glycol, Sodium Stearoyl Lactylate, Chocolate Liquor, Cellulose Gum, Guar Gum, Wheat Starch, Citric Acid, Natural Tocopherol, Tricalcium Phosphate. Contains Major Food Allergens (Milk, Wheat, Soy, Eggs). May Contain Peanuts/Tree Nuts.

It's always good to have your propylene glycol in your underarm deodorant and eat it, too.

reference-image, l