What is 10 miles long, causes obesity and is common in Coconino County? Unfortunately, the answer is not so funny: Food deserts.

Food deserts are areas where residents do not have access to full-service grocery stores. In urban areas, a food desert is defined as living one mile or more from a grocery store where fresh fruits and vegetables are regularly in stock. In rural areas, a “desert” is a 10-mile drive from a grocery store.

There are food deserts throughout the county in areas near Flagstaff and the area north of Flagstaff and south of Page. Residents may have access to convenience stores or other businesses, but those stores often do not offer fresh, healthy foods. If fresh veggies are available, the cost can be prohibitively high.

Living in a food desert is problematic because the general American populace is overweight. The extra weight is leading to shortened lifespans, heart disease and diabetes. Nutritionists are recommending that Americans eat more fresh fruits and vegetables instead of processed foods to control their weight, but convenience stores sell predominantly high-calorie junk food. If people cannot buy fresh food, they will have difficulty maintaining a healthy weight.  

Transportation is also a big barrier for people who reside in food deserts. For those who live without cars or for those who have limited funds for gas, getting to a grocery store can be tough. Access to grocery stores is a problem for many people in food deserts. There may be a farmer’s market or a grocery store that sells lots of apples, spinach and carrots, but if distances are too great, people cannot access the fresh and healthy foods. This also makes it difficult for people to choose to eat healthfully or buy good foods.

There are lots of barriers to eating healthy. One is personal choice. Adults can choose to eat high fat, sugary and salty foods on a regular basis and, most likely, they will become overweight (Body Mass Index of 25-29.9) or obese (Body Mass Index of 30 or higher) over time. However, people who live in a food desert do not have the option of making that personal choice. They may be forced to buy what is available to them such as ramen, soda, hot dogs and canned food.  

However, there are many groups in northern Arizona that are trying to give food desert residents healthier choices. St. Jude Food Bank in Tuba City is running a gardening program, providing healthy food boxes and attempting to fund a traveling farmer’s market that would take locally grown produce to remote sites on the Navajo and Hopi reservations. St. Mary’s Food Bank Alliance in Flagstaff supports many food banks on the Navajo and Hopi Nations and they also do monthly “rural drops.” Finally, the Church of Latter-Day Saints in Tuba City is running a program that provides gardening supplies if rural families want to start their own gardens. This, in addition to a push to expand public transport to more rural areas of Coconino County, may provide more access to healthful, fresh foods.

For more information about how many groups are solving the problems of food deserts, please contact St. Jude Food Bank at 266-2925. For more information on how to eat healthy for your heart and your pocket book, visit http://www.choosemyplate.gov/ or call the Coconino County Public Health Services District at 679-7272.

Angela Horvath is a policy analyst with the Coconino County Public Health Services District. Contact her at 679-7333 or ahorvath@coconino.az.gov.

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