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The North Country's food deserts are in pink. Image: USDA
The North Country's food deserts are in pink. Image: USDA

Irrigating a rural "food desert"

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You may have heard about "food deserts", low income areas in cities where supermarkets won't open because they won't make enough money. Area residents struggle to find affordable and fresh fruits and vegetables. Food deserts are widely considered to be one cause of America's obesity epidemic.

It turns out rural areas have "food deserts", too - even when there's a roadside farm stand right down the road, and the USDA's food desert map shows much of the rural North Country falls into that category.

Cornell Cooperative Extension recently won a $96,000 grant to try to improve both consumer access to fresh fruits and vegetables and local farm production. Jefferson and Lewis County Extension Research Educator Amanda Root spoke with David Sommerstein.

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A farmers market in Watertown, in Jefferson County. Photo: Joanna Richards
A farmers market in Watertown, in Jefferson County. Photo: Joanna Richards
There’s two sides to this. It’s working with producers to make sure that they are marketing their products, and that they are getting into venues such as farm to school and farm to institution. And then there’s the other side of it of working with consumers to make sure that they’re accessing the products.

As you said there are roadside stands, there are those types of venues, and we want to make sure the consumers know that they’re available, where they are, and then how to use what they’re going to buy at those types of things.

And so you’re talking about like teaching people how to cook broccoli, or cabbage, or anything that they would get?

We really hope that we can make healthy choices as easy as possible in communities.
We're going to work very closely with the nutrition programs that are available through Cooperative Extension, which does just what you’re talking about.

Why is this food desert thing such a problem in [this area], I mean aren’t we…as sort of rural citizens, used to driving a long way to the grocery store?

We are, but we really hope that we can make healthy choices as easy as possible in communities. And part of that is having ready access to healthy food. So the easier we can make it for people to access local healthy foods, the more likely they are to consume them.

It’s a two year grant, what do you feel you can accomplish in two years?

Well we have some very specific outcomes in Lewis County, as I said we would like to increase the number of CSAs from zero, 'cause there isn’t any there right now, to two or three. We would like to work with the producers in the area to see about increasing the number of farmers markets. There are three currently happening in Lewis County.

In Jefferson County we hope to work with five area institutions to have them purchase from local producers. In Jefferson County we produce a food guide every year, our local food guide. But in Lewis County, there hasn’t been funding to produce a local food guide. And we will be doing that over the next couple of years, and then looking for sustainable funding to continue that. And again that will help both sides. It will help producers market, and hopefully increase their profit margins, and it will also help consumers know where they can go to access local foods.

Why are you excited about getting this grant?

Well I’m excited for multiple reasons, because this not only will help economically in our region, it will help…farmers grow their businesses. But it will also help with the public health side of things in regard to helping people make healthy choices easier. And I’ve been working for the last couple of years on various projects and about communities adopting healthy habits. And this type of project where we can help both sides of the equation, it’s directly in line with that.

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