Monday, February 4th, 2013...3:31 am

Rockbridge County: Farmland or Food Desert?

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Food deserts have been the target of numerous urban farming initiatives. But city spaces are not the only ones that can be “food deserts,” as I learned over Thanksgiving break.

When I was home for a couple days in November, my mom gave me an issue of the local newspaper she’d saved for me to read. The Roanoke Times ran this article, titled “He’s Making It Work: Living in a rural food desert means it’s a challenge for this Rockbridge County single father to put food on the table.” Interested, I read through it and came away feeling… not necessarily surprised, now that I think about it… maybe disheartened is the word I’m looking for. I felt disheartened because Rockbridge County is, and has been since it was first settled, an agricultural area and now it’s a food desert where people are struggling to feed themselves and their children.

My Rockbridge County neighbors (cows)

The focus of the article, David McCormick, may very well have come from the McCormick lineage, which is one of the older families in the area according to this map circa 1860 from Historic Map Works, LLC. I don’t know for sure, but it’s likely he’s from the same McCormick family that has fields of corn and cattle near my house. If that’s the case, it makes David’s story even more troubling. Here is a man working and raising kids in a county where his relatives are farming—where the high school has a “Drive Your Tractor to School Day”—and he’s dependent on SNAP to feed his family?

The even more frustrating and confusing thing is that this is hardly a unique situation. Maybe we can take the “food desert” designation with a grain of salt and ask questions like, “Does the designation account for home gardens?” and “How far does the nearest grocery store have to be?” but even with a skeptic eye we still see a large number of rural residents struggling to access healthy food. If we use the USDA’s “Food Desert Locator” tool (a snapshot of which is featured as the header of this blog), we get an idea for the literal expanse of the problem of food deserts. According to this tool:

The HFFI working group defines a food desert as a low-income census tract where a substantial number or share of residents has low access to a supermarket or large grocery store:
• To qualify as a “low-income community,” a census tract must have either: 1) a poverty rate of 20 percent or higher, OR 2) 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 (for rural census tracts, the distance is more than 10 miles).

Under this classification, yes, I do live in a food desert. The nearest grocery store is 12 miles away. But I also live on some of the most fertile bottomland in the area, cows graze not 10 yards from my window, and the boys are always driving by with trucks full of the latest harvest.

But when I think about it, I’m not surprised we’re getting pegged with a “food desert” title. According to the US Census Bureau, almost 12% of Rockbridge County residents are living under the poverty line, and I went to school with a lot of them. And no, I could see they weren’t eating well despite living amongst farms.

I don’t have a solution to this paradox, but I do think a lot would come from a change in attitude about our farmers and farm laborers. Our food producers are some of the lowest paid workers in the country. A quick glance at the National Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates puts food prep work (median hourly wage: $8.76) just below farm laborers (mean hourly wage: $8.99). Last year I read somewhere that farm labor isn’t thought of as skilled labor, and as someone who has tried and given up on working as a farm laborer, it’s more skilled than most of the things I’ve ever done. Respect for the skills involved might help people stomach paying prices that the food deserves, which might help the people producing that food be able to afford their own products.

Successful urban farms might help eradicate city food deserts, but apparently no number of farms alone will help eradicate rural food deserts. It’s a disappointing irony, and is the basis for the theme of this blog.

I hope to return to this problem occasionally throughout the semester to add my newly developed thoughts and ideas. But honestly, I foresee a conclusion centered on systemic issues and paradigms, one that does not offer any helpful solutions.

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