‘Living in a Food Desert’ looks at a problem you may not know about

Posted at 10:58 AM, Mar 03, 2015
and last updated 2015-03-03 11:05:54-05

ETTRICK, Va - There is an ongoing health problem, happening right now, that affects 1.4 million Virginians and is widespread in the Richmond-Metro. Last year, a group of local health officials, advocates and educators found that the city of Richmond is one of the largest food deserts in the country, when compared to cities of similar size.  The entire city of Petersburg qualifies as one too, researchers said.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines food deserts as areas where people cannot access affordable and nutritious food.  They are usually found in low-income areas where it is hard for residents to get to grocery stores or markets, according to the study. Many times the results are what you would expect.  People eat food where they can get it, and researchers said that usually mean eating meals at fast food restaurants or shopping at corner stores.

Health officials said this kind of diet poses health care and economic risks.  The study, which was released last year, took a comprehensive look at food deserts in Virginia; however, leaders wanted a better way to expose this issue to the public than a Powerpoint or binder presentation.  That's where "Living in a Food Desert" got its start.

The film, which premiered on Sunday at the Byrd Theatre, chronicled what it is like for people who struggle through living in a food desert.  More than simply fleshing out the details of the study, the filmmakers spoke with Virginians who live and work in food deserts each day.

"They should have more than one grocery store in our area that's an actual grocery store, not a damn junk store," said a Lynchburg woman in the film's trailer.

"People are struggling, and they don't know how to get to what's fresh," Dr. Jewel Hairston, Dean of Agriculture at Virginia State University and co-chair of the 2014 study, said.

"It keeps me up at night.  The thought, the idea, that children are going to bed hungry," Richmond pastor Rev. Dr. Michael Sanders told filmmakers.  More than 16 percent of children are food insecure, the study found.

Some of the major contributing factors that result in food deserts are poverty and lack of transportation for residents, so leaders believe focusing on these issues while making healthy, fresh food more accessible can help. But getting locals to speak up about how the problem affects their neighborhood is key to any solution, Dr. Hairston said.

"The more passionate people are and the more people speak up when they have needs, we can help get those needs addressed.  We can help bring some of the solutions to the problem," said Hairston.

To read the complete study, click here. Filmmakers will make "Living in a Food Desert" available for online streaming March 4.  Visit V.S.U.'s College of Agriculture website for a link to the film.