Dr. Ashley White, We-Collab
November 20, 2017
in Healthy Food Access
Traveling is always exciting but after some time spent in a different city, a crowded airport, and one Uber or Lyft ride too many, I am ready to finally get home. A sense of calm always passes over me as I enter the city limits of Marks, Mississippi, and drive the two miles to Lambert. As I approach my hometown, I’m welcomed by a small sign in the distance that reads, “Lambert a town of hope.” This sign is a welcome and a sobering reminder that I am home…in an area without access to healthy, affordable foods. Over the summer, the only grocery store in the county closed its doors. This closure comes on the heels of the only county hospital closing earlier this year. For many individuals like myself, who grew up in various parts of the Mississippi Delta, it’s heartbreaking to find another piece of our hope evaporating. As public health professionals, we know that access to food and healthcare are two key determinants of health and quality of life, yet these two staples no longer exist in many rural regions of our country.
Access to grocery stores, reliable transportation, employment opportunities, and neighborhood structures all impact access to healthy foods. The disappearance of hospitals and grocery stores has become a normative part of living in a rural area, placing individuals at an increased risk for health conditions, impairment in physical and mental functioning, and higher mortality rates. The Mississippi Delta is a paradox of fertile farm land and areas lacking healthy foods. While these towns and neighborhoods are often lacking whole food providers, particularly fresh fruits and vegetables, they are saturated by quickie marts, fast food chains, and liquor stores. Food purchased at these establishments are often processed, packed with sugar, and laden with fat, which are all known contributors to our nation’s weight-related diseases, such as type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
These diseases are intensified in areas without access to healthy foods, where lack of a vehicle, long distances, and time to travel to purchase groceries are all major obstacles. More than 70 percent of the low-income populations in the Mississippi Delta often travel 20 or more miles to access the lower food prices offered by a supermarket or large grocery store. Those who are unable to travel are left with few to no options. In communities like my own, where even the small grocers have closed, retailers like dollar stores have opened and are selling basic provisions such as bread, milk, and frozen foods. Though these retailers are partially fulfilling a void in the market, they are not a substitute for full service grocery stores and farmers markets.
As public health professionals, we must realize that focusing our efforts on individual level changes to nutrition are futile when the availability of nutritious options don’t even exist. Access to food is a health equity issue, and we must dig deep to dismantle the structural biases that shape systems, policies, and practices that lead to the development of these large areas barren of healthy retailers. Health equity is attained when all people can achieve their optimal level of health and when gaps in health outcomes between groups of people are eliminated. It is achieved when grocery stores are able to thrive in communities allowing residents to live a healthy life, and when buying groceries is no longer something you have to make plans to do. Health equity is achieved when cities and towns like Lambert, Mississippi, no longer welcome you with only hope.