North Carolina House to study food deserts like Zebulon

mhankerson@newsobserver.comJanuary 31, 2014 

— Food security in the eastern part of Wake County isn’t a new concept to those who live and work in the community and now, the state is taking notice.

State representatives held the first study committee meeting study food deserts last week, where they were briefed by several organizations about food deserts and where it’s an issue around the state, including Zebulon and some areas on the border of Knightdale and Raleigh.

Food deserts are areas where access to food is made difficult by the lack of a nearby large grocery stores and by some standards, how many residents have access to regular transportation to those large stores.

Jim Fulghum (R-Wake) said it seems like the central part of the state was better off than areas further east or west, but he understands there are several layers to the issue of food security.

“It turned out to be more than just grocery stores in neighborhoods,” he said. “I thought it was just a distance problem. It’s far more complex.”

Deserts in eastern Wake County

According to a food desert locator created by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, almost all of Zebulon and some outlying areas on the border of Knightdale and Raleigh are considered food deserts.

The USDA defines food deserts as an urban or rural area without ready access to healthy and affordable food.

To be identified as a food desert, the USDA uses two standards. An area must be considered low income and low access. Low access means 33 percent of the population or at least 500 people live more than 10 miles from a large grocery store.

In urban areas, the same amount of people must live more than one mile from a large grocery store.

Since the USDA first started tracking food deserts, definitions have been altered to account for how easy it is for residents to get to grocery stores.

Generally, areas considered food deserts don’t have large grocery stores. For economic reasons, many big-box stores tend to skip over areas that become food deserts because of concern that there isn’t a large enough population or other economic reasons.

Fulghum said he thinks food deserts might be an issue with food distribution and affordability.

“The ability to pay for the food (is a problem) even if the store’s right next to you,” he said. “We thought we were addressing that and we are to some extent (with) EBT and SNAP.”

Transportation, not stores

Most food deserts have a problem with enticing large grocery stores to come to the town but for Zebulon and other food desert areas in eastern Wake County, community leaders have pointed to transportation as the issue.

A few months ago, during the county commissioner’s Listening Tour stop in Wendell, community leaders told county officials food security is still an issue in eastern Wake County. Local leaders and residents acknowledged some of the problem was just that residents couldn’t get to places they needed to be.

Darryl Blevins, the director of the Eastern Regional Center, pointed out that his center is bogged down with cases because residents can’t always get anywhere besides the regional center .

Finding solutions to the problem remains a way off.

“We’re far too early to be talking solutions at this point,” Fulghum said, but he did have some ideas he thought could help alleviate the difficulties in food deserts.

At the committee meeting, Fulghum said the committee heard about alternative ways for getting fresh, healthy food to residents besides grocery stores.

The committee, which also includes Wake County Rep. Yvonne Holley, discussed ways to get local farmers involved in events like roadside markets or farmer’s markets.

Fulghum said there were several things the state could do for businesses that might encourage them to go to areas that are considered food deserts. “We can look at certain revenue laws ... (there) may be some regulatory barriers that we can ease to make sure we don’t discourage farmers from working in that area,” he said.

Fulghum said the state committee will meet three more times before the General Assembly goes into session May 14.

Since it is a study committee, it will not create or sponsor any legislation but Fulghum said he hopes members of the committee will create their own legislation to eliminate food deserts.

Hankerson: 919-829-4826; Twitter: @easternwakenews

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