Agriculture is the No. 1 industry in Virginia, but fresh, healthy food isn’t readily accessible to more than 17 percent of the state’s population.
According to the results of a report commissioned by the Virginia General Assembly, more than 1.4 million Virginians, or 17.8 percent, live in “food deserts” where access to affordable, nutritious, fresh foods is limited.
“People have known this for a while, but the report puts hard numbers behind the facts,” said Spencer Neale, commodity marketing director for the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation and chairman of the Virginia Food System Council. “This report identifies the issue of food deserts and where they occur and addresses the need for better access and distribution of food to people in those areas.”
The report said Virginia’s food deserts are usually found in impoverished areas without grocery stores, farmers’ markets or other providers of healthy foods. Food deserts contribute to food insecurity, which means people who live in those areas aren’t always sure where their meals will come from.
“This used to be a problem that didn’t seem to involve the agricultural community at large; it was a city issue,” Neale said. “But 83 percent of Americans currently live in urban or suburban areas, and that number is projected to increase to 90 percent in 2050. People are starting to look at food from a systemic approach—from production to distribution—and agriculture plays a critical role in getting healthy food to more of our population.
“This is a chance for rural and urban interests to work together.”
The report was compiled by a task force co-chaired by Dr. Jewel Hairston, dean of the College of Agriculture at Virginia State University, and Dr. Alan Grant, dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Virginia Tech. The task force was made up of a diverse group of stakeholders from organizations that address agricultural, health, religious, retail and food distribution issues.
Some of their solutions for eradicating food deserts involve using mobile farmers’ markets and community kitchens, taking advantage of the Virginia Cooperative Extension network to expand Extension’s family nutrition program and encouraging investment in the production of local foods through expanded grant programs.
The Virginia Food System Council was identified in the report’s recommendations as a key partner to facilitate and coordinate discussions and efforts to address the task force’s findings. The council represents 20 different sectors of the food community, including farmers, dietitians, school nutritionists, health care facilities, food banks, gleaners and others. It facilitates connections between food producers and consumers.
“It’s a good way for diverse groups to come together and work on ways to give people better access to healthy foods,” Neale said. “Once we clearly identify the challenges at hand, then we can work together to develop solutions that, hopefully, will cut across access, income and societal barriers and improve the daily lives of our
affected citizens. The task force report is the critical first step in this process.”