Agriculture is Virginia's No. 1 industry. But, ironically, for a state that produces an abundance of food, the commonwealth has its share of food deserts — areas where residents have limited access to fresh, healthy foods.
According to a new report commissioned by the Virginia General Assembly, more than 1.4 million Virginians — 17.8 percent of the population — live in food deserts. In Lynchburg, the rate is 26.4 percent. The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines food deserts as areas where people cannot access affordable and nutritious foods. They are usually found in impoverished areas lacking grocery stores, farmers markets, and healthy food providers. Food deserts contribute to food insecurity, which means people aren’t sure where their food will come from.
The report focused on the state as a whole as well as on eight cities and counties across Virginia. It was compiled by a task force chaired by Dean Jewel Hairston of the College of Agriculture at Virginia State University and Dean Alan Grant of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Virginia Tech. A PDF of the report, "Food Deserts in Virginia," can be downloaded from the Virginia Cooperative Extension website.
"We live in one of the greatest countries in the world, yet 17 percent of our children lack adequate access to fresh foods," said Hairston. "I’d say that’s a huge concern."
Some solutions to eradicating food deserts involve employing mobile farmers markets and community kitchens, taking advantage of the existing Virginia Cooperative Extension network to expand its Family Nutrition Program, and encouraging investment in the production of local foods through expanded grant programs.
Susan Clark, associate professor of horticulture and director of civic agriculture and food systems at Virginia Tech, is a member of the task force.
"The very solutions that eliminate food deserts within our communities provide opportunities that strengthen the farming and community retail food businesses," said Clark. "These opportunities in turn can grow jobs, create a healthier, more productive workforce, and lead to food security for every citizen within the Commonwealth of Virginia."
Written by Amy Loeffler.