Healthy groceries photoBy Riamy Beuscher, communications intern

Do you know what a food desert is? Simply stated, it means that it is difficult to get to a local grocery store stocked with fresh fruits and vegetables and all the other typical food items you would expect to find. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines a rural food desert as an area that is located 10 miles or farther from a supermarket or large grocery store.

Food deserts are common among rural communities, given their nature to be physically separated from dense urban communities that grocery retailers prefer. Rural shoppers who are located far away from a grocery store, may turn to less nutritious and more expensive options available at gas stations or convenience stores.

According to World Bank data from 2015, roughly 18 percent of Americans live in rural settings. Within the United States 418 counties classify as food deserts. These areas are commonplace in the border states of North Dakota and Montana continuing to the western half of Texas.

Mary Stein, program leader for the sustainable food and bioenergy systems degree at Montana State University told MTN News, “We used to have a situation in rural communities where the independent grocery store was kind of the center for food access, as the populations have declined in rural America, we’ve seen a lot of those independent grocery stores close up. We see that food desert communities have higher rates of obesity, higher instances of cardiovascular disease, and Type-II diabetes.”

Some retailers are now considering options to address food deserts. In 2011, executives from notable chain stores including Walmart and Walgreens joined the Obama administration to announce an initiative to open more than 1,500 stores in areas designated as food deserts.

However, lack of profit has made it difficult for stores to stay open. Walmart said it will be closing 154 stores, of which many are located in food desert communities.

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