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Mississippi has many food deserts, or areas with limited availability of or access to quality, nutritious foods. Stores such as this one seen Jan. 16, 2017, in Clay County, Mississippi, are often the only places to buy groceries in the area. (Photo by MSU Extension Service/Kat Lawrence)

Plan ahead for healthy shopping in food deserts

MSU Extension Service

STARKVILLE, Miss. -- Education is part of the solution to the unfortunate paradox facing many areas in Mississippi that struggle with high obesity rates but healthy food is not easily accessible.

Food insecurity is defined as having limited or uncertain access to food. It often results from families living in food deserts, or areas with limited availability of quality, nutritious foods such as whole grains, lean meats, low-fat dairy, and fresh fruits and vegetables. Instead, food deserts tend to have more nutrition-poor, energy-dense foods such as those found in fast-food restaurants and convenience stores.

David Buys is the state health specialist with the Mississippi State University Extension Service and a scientist with the Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station. He said people in food-insecure households may rely on higher calorie, lower nutrient diets than those in food-secure households.

“Some folks hear the term ‘food insecurity’ and immediately think of starving children in the developing world,” Buys said. “In the United States, obesity is often the face of food insecurity.”

Lower quality, calorie-dense foods are typically less expensive than healthy foods and have been shown to promote weight gain. These are often the only foods available in many low-income neighborhoods or rural communities.

“This leads to the irony that some people in food-insecure areas end up obese rather than underweight,” Buys said.

The MSU Extension Service is providing education to help families living with food insecurity learn how to make wise choices about the food they buy.

Sarah Muhammad, a dietetic intern and graduate student from Chicago, worked from the Oktibbeha County Extension office to study this issue in the state and develop an educational resource agents can offer to clients.

“We went into communities in the Delta that had only convenience stores or fast-food restaurants and conducted a survey that gave a score showing how healthy a store is based on how many healthy food options they have,” Muhammad said. “I developed a handout that lists tips on how to get the most nutritional food when shopping in a food desert.”

In her assessment, Muhammad found that shoppers using government assistance might not spend as efficiently as they would when using their own money.

“When some people go shopping, they just get random items rather than trying to choose items to make a meal,” she said. “It is wise to choose food to make meals that are nutrient-rich instead of energy-rich.”

Muhammad said research on this subject shows that the poor nutrition and obesity link also exists in major cities. This finding indicates a need for education in both urban and rural areas to address the poor nutrition and obesity epidemic.

Planning before shopping is a key to making better choices in food deserts, as is selecting options that keep a person full longer.

“Make a grocery list ahead of time for what you want, and try to choose foods that can be used to make full meals, saving both time and money,” she said. “Foods like potatoes, beans, eggs, oatmeal and apples are all foods that, when eaten in the right portions, can put a hold on hunger from meal to meal.”

Wise choices on canned and frozen foods include low or reduced-sodium options and low-fat dairy items when available.

“These practices can help lower the risk of chronic disease such as diabetes,” Muhammad said.

She also encouraged shoppers in food deserts to bring helpers with them to return home with larger quantities at one time, limiting trips to the store. It is also a good idea to stock up on sales items, canned or frozen foods that store well, and foods that can be frozen for longer storage, Muhammad said.

Released: January 26, 2017
Contacts: Dr. David Buys
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