'Food deserts' a growing concern for S.C. residents

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Clemson University

WEST COLUMBIA — Hundreds of thousands of people across South Carolina live in communities where access to supermarkets or large grocery stores is beyond reach. In agricultural terms, such areas are called “food deserts” — communities where healthy, affordable food is difficult to obtain.

“For a growing population, healthy foods are much harder to come by in the modern world,” Clemson University professor Dave Lamie said. “For many, they sadly are beyond reach.”

Lamie is chairman of the S.C. Food Policy Council and a community economics researcher with Clemson’s Institute for Economic and Community Development at the Sandhill Research and Education Center in Columbia.

The Food Policy Council, Lowcountry Housing Trust and S.C. Department of Agriculture hosted the “Growing Food and Opportunities in South Carolina: Economic and Community Development through Healthy Food Access,” a workshop to address the health and socio-economic issues associated with food deserts.

Municipal, charity, retail and education officials met at the S.C. State Farmers Market to discuss ways to decrease food deserts across South Carolina and how healthy environments can drive economic development.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture broadly defines urban food deserts as low-income census tracts where people live more than one mile from a supermarket or large grocery store. In rural areas, that distance expands to people living more than 10 miles from supermarkets or large grocery stores.

Michelle Mapp, executive director of Lowcounty Housing Trust, said there are 1,632 rural and 4,897 urban food deserts in South Carolina.

In some urban areas, grocery stores have left communities as residents moved to suburban areas. And in many rural areas, local fresh food outlets have closed leaving shoppers without independent transportation access to healthier foods.

The workshop’s keynote address was given by Jeff Brown, chief executive of Brown’s Super Stores, a Philadelphia-area grocery store chain and an active member of the city’s nonprofit organizations that aim to improve access to food in low-income communities.

Nationwide, about 49 million people live in poverty, Brown said.

For many people, living in poverty brings other social issues, such as shortfalls in health and health care, education and employment.

Obesity, for example, relates as much to access to healthy foods as much as it relates to food quantity, Brown said.

Many modern lifestyles — sedentary with a heavy reliance on processed foods, when combined with the food deserts problem — only increases the risks for those living in poverty.

“We have a problem with poverty and the food system isn’t really designed to deal with it,” Brown said. “One of the reasons we’re here today is because we can’t allow it to continue.”

No one group can fix the problem, Brown said.

Governments, philanthropical groups and free enterprise cannot fix problems associated with food deserts unless they work together.

But left alone, obesity of the poor will cripple the country and the health care system.