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Food Deserts: How they Impact Our Lives

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December 10, 2018

Host: Sarah Muhamad, Dietetic Intern

Announcer: Farm & Family is a production of the Mississippi State University extension service.

Amy Myers: Today we're talking about food deserts and how they impact our lives. Hello, I'm Amy Taylor Myers and welcome to Farm & Family. Today we're speaking with Sarah Muhammad, dietetic intern at Mississippi State University. She's come to talk about the interesting topic that plays a huge role in the prevalence of food insecurity and how the extension service can play a role in advocating for healthier practices. Can you give a little background for the audience to understand what food deserts are?

Sarah Muhammad: Food deserts are defined by the USDA as parts of the country vapid in fresh fruits, vegetables, and other healthful whole foods, usually found in impoverished areas. Basically these are areas where there are a lack of grocery stores that provide foods necessary for creating healthy meals. Grocery stores may not easily be accessible on a 10-minute walk or bike ride and in cases where there's limited transportation available, it's even more difficult to travel far distances for fresh and healthy groceries.

Amy Myers: Given the background on the definition of these food deserts, are there areas in the country where they may be more prevalent than others?

Sarah Muhammad: Though food deserts can exist in both rural and urban areas, we see the rural areas being more of areas of concern due to smaller population size and lack of major industry in those areas where the revenue is not as strong compared to a larger metropolitan area. Here in Mississippi, for instance, the prevalence of food deserts in rural areas is comparatively higher to that of other states because of the lack of incentive to place the larger grocery stores in those areas that provide a variety of nutritious items.

At the extension services, we actually went out into the community and to local convenience stores to see the variety of food that they offer and to assess what's readily available to those who may live in areas defined as food deserts. We found that there's little to zero fresh produce and most of the canned food options have higher sodium content.

Amy Myers: With the current information and research on food deserts, what is the role of the extension service in combating the effects of this issue?

Sarah Muhammad: Basically my role at the extension services is providing information that will help optimize the resources that are available to those that live in these areas and help them make healthier choices with limited resources. By providing shopping tips, this can give someone the tools that they need to plan ahead and purchase the healthiest options possible while saving money. For example, informing someone that they can purchase frozen vegetables and steam them as compared to boiling or frying them to retain their nutritional value is the type of advice that's easy to understand. It saves money compared to buying fresh and requires little effort.

At the extension offices, we also provide assistance through facilitating programs like SNAP Ed and Ethnet, which is another nutrition education program, and really provide the education needed to make informed decisions when it comes to shopping and low-income households. Also, television programs like The Food Factor provide fun, simple nutrition tips for everyday cooking. Food Factor is a weekly television segment. It's shown at MSU extension's TV newscast called Farm Week, which airs on our FDTV as well as Mississippi Public Broadcasting, also known as PBS.

Amy Myers: What can people in these communities affected by food deserts expect to gain from this knowledge overall?

Sarah Muhammad: The information being provided to the audience is all about self-sufficiency and cost-effectiveness in the short-term but also in the long run. For those who have difficulty purchasing enough groceries to prepare nutritious meals on a tight budget, being able to have the education to sit and plan a successful shopping trip but not take up too much time will be beneficial for the future and also become second nature. At extension, we are seeking to teach people to shop for things to create healthy meals and not just snacks, placing emphasis on the meals and understanding the mechanism behind that can greatly help counter the negative effects that food deserts have on the community.

Amy Myers: Lastly, where can individuals go to gain more information about food deserts?

Sarah Muhammad: On the USDA website, which is, type in "food access research atlas" and it sends you to a map tool that was developed to identify these areas, which are considered low-income, low-access areas that are defined as the food deserts.

Amy Myers: Today we've been speaking with Sarah Muhammad, dietetic intern at Mississippi State University. I'm Amy Taylor Myers and this has been Farm & Family. Have a great day.

Announcer: Farm & Family is a production of the Mississippi State University extension service.

Department: Food Science, Nutrition and Health Promotion

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