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USDA lists Kittson County as a "Food Desert" But is it?

Northern Minnesota Food Deserts
Northern Minnesota Food Deserts

Disturbing news Kittson County residents: The United States Department of Agriculture has officially listed our corner of Minnesota as a “Food Desert.”

A Food Desert is defined as any location where residents have a tough time getting to a place where they can buy fresh fruits and vegetables -- broccoli, bananas, oranges, leafy greens – any food that is fresh and not frozen, canned or processed.

More specifically, a Food Desert is where these items are not within easy walking distance. That means you have to drive – which in turn means you need at least access to a car – to get to a place where fresh foods can be purchased.

If you go here to the USDA Food Locator – FOOD LOCATOR – -- you will see that Kittson County appears in bright green, and is categorized in the most severe categories of “LI” and “LA.” These stand for “Low Income” and “Low Access."

The term “Food Desert” was coined in England in 1996, according to The Economist. An article in the July 27, 2002, issue of The Economist, said:

"There are food deserts all over Britain, in rural as well as urban areas. "It's not just a matter of there being no shops," says Elizabeth Dowler, a sociologist at Warwick University. "Often there are shops. But these tend to be meagre, run-down shops which sell little or no fresh food." Less than 20% of the houses were within 500 metres of a shop selling fresh fruit and vegetables. This can be attributed largely to the steady increase in the number of supermarkets in Britain since the 1970s and the commensurate decline in the number of independent grocers. Around 80% of food shopping is now done in supermarkets, compared with less than 50% 25 years ago."

That Kittson County is now considered a Food Desert by the USDA may come as a surprise to Kittson County residents, most of whom have probably never had difficulty buying fresh fruits and vegetables.

This is a vast area with a sparse population. The primary grocery stores are located in Hallock, Karlstad, Lancaster and Lake Bronson. Most people in those towns are within walking distance of the grocery store, and they all sell fresh foods. Folks living on farms and rural areas all have vehicles and drive to town on a regular basis.

Somewhat ironically, the Food Desert concept is more applicable to urban areas such as the Twin Cities, where poor people are more likely to be living in neighborhoods where they only have easy access to convenience stores and fast food joints, many of which don’t sell fresh fruits and vegetables.

But the fact is, Kittson County – with just four grocery stores -- has far more grocery stores per capita than most other areas of Minnesota. Statistically, Kittson County has 8.9 grocery stores per 10,000 people – whereas the rest of Minnesota has just 1.8 grocery stores per 10,000 people. Source

Also, any one taking a drive around Kittson County in the summer will notice a a lot of backyard gardens. Gardening, canning, growing your own and preserving fresh foods is alive and well here. It's the best way to counter the Food Desert effect.

The reason that the USDA is concerned about the nation’s Food Deserts is that it represents a significant health issue. America is experiencing an “obesity epidemic.” The rates of other diseases related to obesity is also increasingly alarmingly, especially diabetes.

In these two categories, Kittson County is not faring as well. More than 27 percent of Kittson County residents are obese, while the Minnesota state average is just over 25 percent. The rate of diabetes is also higher in Kittson County with 8.3 percent of the population suffering from diabetes, while the state average is 6.5%. Source

The bottom line is, Kittson County’s USDA designation as a Food Desert is more the result of a statistical aberration than an actual reality.

However, Kittson County is facing a much more serious problem that is far more real – we may not be a Food Desert, but this county is increasingly becoming a “GREEN DESERT” – and that’s what I will write about in my next article.


More interesting northern Minnesota news and information: MOTHER MINNESOTA


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