In southern Illinois most of the landscape is perfect for farming.
In the summer, a lot of the roads look like hallways with corn for walls.
But even surrounded by all of this fresh healthy food, some towns that are surrounded by these fields don’t have access to those fresh foods.
This is what’s called a food desert, an area that doesn’t have access to fresh healthy foods.
Southern Seven Health Department covers Hardin, Johnson, Massac, Pope, Pulaski, Union and Alexander counties.
Director Nancy Holt says these counties are mostly food deserts because they have limited resources for healthy food.
“Took a look at just how many typical or standard type grocery stores or food markets we have in the seven counties and we counted seventeen in the entire 7 counties and there’s three counties that only have one.”
For example: Alexander County has a population of over 7,000 people with over a third of them living in Cairo, but the only grocery store in the county is 16 miles away in Olive Branch, a town whose population is just over 800.
“Transportation is a big issue - it really is. If you have a vehicle or a reliable vehicle then with the price of gas, even though the price of gas has been down in recent months it’s coming back up and it costs money to drive a long distance to buy groceries and you can’t just hop in a car and drive 20 miles to the grocery store every couple of days to buy something, so that’s an issue.”
In those counties that are considered food deserts like Alexander County, there are some small convenience stores that do offer some food choices, but on a much smaller scale in terms of quantity and quality.
“They might be able to buy low cost food, but it’s not the healthiest food and high calorie low nutrition type food then contributes to the obesity issue.”
Shiloh Deitz is a researcher with the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute.
She recently published a research paper titled “Healthy Communities in Southern Illinois”
Deitz found that price also drives the decision making process when buying food.
“Some of these fast food stores you can swing in and grab a meal for under $5 and you have it you can eat it, going to a grocery store, the fresh fruits and vegetables often just cost more.”
With the fresh foods costing more, people tend to buy the unhealthy food that’s cheaper, but not because they want to be unhealthy.
“They know perhaps what’s healthy, but they feel that they can’t afford it, and so I think there is a financial aspect and an educational aspect that would need to go with any push for healthier communities - that people need to be perhaps educated about the importance and programs that make it affordable for them so that the decision doesn’t have to be between buying the food that you can afford that’s unhealthy and perhaps buying healthy food but that pushes your budget.”
On top of availability and cost, time is also a factor.
“People are busy, perhaps single parents - they’re busy families working a lot and so those options are often times both cheaper and faster and closer.”
And when you're busy all the time and take the easy route by going to a drive through, or doing the grab-and-go meals from a convenience store, it can catch up to you.
“That leads to kind of an unhealthy lifestyle or an unhealthy choice which increases obesity rates. Obesity rates are much higher across the U.S. in rural areas and I think this contributes to it in large part.”
Living in large rural areas where your choices are premade, prepackaged, or fast food down the street versus an hour round trip to the grocery store also has an affect on how people eat and the choices they make.
“As the distance increases, obesity tends to go up, and so I guess the further the distance to healthy food, the larger the obesity rates that we're seeing. So that would suggest that when people have to travel farther for food that maybe they’re choosing these, I mean I can’t say exactly why it is but maybe it’s because these unhealthy food options are closer and cheaper, so they tend to go for that convenience thing and that might increase obesity rates.”
There are some healthy choices at these stores if you know what to look for. Southern Seven’s director of nursing Cheryl Manus says look for foods that are considered low energy density foods.
These are foods that have low calories per gram of food.
This would be foods like soup, pasta, rice and other items that absorb water.
This way, you get to eat more without the food being high in fat and calories.
But in small stores there could big a bigger issue with buying them.
“At the convenience store, (that) comes in a package that could be smaller than what is available at the grocery store and it tends to cost a little bit more, so you end up paying more for less. If you can get to the grocery store you can get more for your money, because the packages for the food comes in larger serving sizes. It’s a better deal to go to the grocery store.”
Holt says one way people can gain access to fresh foods would be at a farmers market.
However those usually pop up where there’s a large amount of people, like grocery stores.
“I think farmers markets are a really good thing. I don’t know if there’s just not enough people that grow their own vegetables in the summertime to warrant establishing a farmers market. I really don’t know why there’s not more farmers markets.”
Manus says there are a few sprinkled around the Southern Seven area, but not enough.
“I don’t know why we don’t have more farmers markets in our other counties. We just seem to have - there’s like a small one in Pope County, and they’ve been trying to get one in Massac County, but so far that hasn’t quite taken off. But we have a lot of truck farmers in the Cobden/Alto Pass area, and they are the ones that supply all the vegetables at Anna for that farmers market.”
To help get these started, the USDA offers assistance through their farmers market promotion program.
Last year, Carbondale received over $34,000 to do market analysis to improve traffic and offer more vendors - to get more regional food to the community.
But in those places that don’t offer farmers markets, Deitz says they could start small and build from there.
“I think there’s other ideas that we can think about. Maybe a small fruit and vegetable stand on the side of the road that people bring their goods to, maybe less infrastructure planning goes into it. But you could still have a smaller version of that.”
Link to Farmers Market Promotion Program: CLICK HERE
Link to "Healthy Communities in Southern Illinois" CLICK HERE