Agriculture is Virginia’s No. 1 industry. But ironically, for a state that produces an abundance of food, the commonwealth has its share of food deserts — areas that offer limited access to fresh, healthy foods.
In 2013, a task force led by Dean Jewel Hairston of the College of Agriculture at Virginia State University and Dean Alan Grant of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Virginia Tech took a closer look at food deserts in Virginia to determine their challenges and consequences and to analyze possible strategies and resources to address the issue.
According to the task force’s report, more than 1.4 million Virginians — 17.8 percent of the population — live in food deserts. In Lynchburg, the rate is 26.4 percent.
Food deserts, defined by the USDA as areas where residents cannot access affordable and nutritious foods, are usually found in impoverished areas lacking grocery stores, farmers markets, and healthy food providers. Food deserts contribute to food insecurity — the term used to describe when people aren’t sure where their food will come from.
“We live in one of the greatest countries in the world, yet 17 percent of our children lack adequate access to fresh foods,” said Hairston. “I’d say that’s a huge concern.”
Some solutions for eradicating food deserts involve employing mobile farmers markets and community kitchens, taking advantage of the existing Virginia Cooperative Extension network to expand its Family Nutrition Program, and encouraging investment in the production of local foods through expanded grant programs.
A PDF of the report, “Food Deserts in Virginia,” can be downloaded from the Virginia Cooperative Extension website.