(February 3, 2011 - New West)—Especially in rural areas, food deserts exist beyond the reaches of the massive food distribution system in this country. Chuck Verbeck, an administrator for Sysco Corporation, the largest food distributor in North America, said it all comes down to the costs of delivering a relatively small amount of food to stores with undersized customer pools, many of which are far off of main highways.
“When it comes to rural areas and our decisions there… it’s like any business,” said Verbeck, the company’s vice president of program sales for the Billings, Mont., distribution facility. “It’s all driven by profitability and access.”
Verbeck pointed to the lack of operating grocery stores that his trucks service in tiny towns in Montana and Wyoming. He said the majority of deliveries are to bars and casinos that serve food. And while the company — which does $38 billion in food services a year nationally — has no exact rule on where to deliver, if a Sysco salesperson can’t make a profit in a place, you definitely won’t see a truck in that town.
Even places where distributors could make money sometimes get left behind, especially due to inclement weather. Conditions can cause deliveries to become increasingly difficult.
“We’ve got a $200,000 piece of equipment and our drivers’ safety to take into consideration,” Verbeck said. “When the snow flies, sometimes we don’t. And that’s Mother Nature dictating where we go.”
That scenario tends to occur each year in Cooke City, Mont., where trucks coming from Billings, located just 125 miles northeast, have to circle around Yellowstone National Park on more reliable roads to even get near the town, he said. The new route adds hours and more than 100 miles of travel to the itinerary. If they can’t make it all the way into Cooke City, a seasonal tourist town with a permanent population of little more than 100, Sysco tries to coordinate a drop point where pickup trucks can pack the product back up icy, winding roads.
When fresh fruits, vegetables and lean meats are left out of a person’s diet, serious problems develop. Without the nutrients that come from a balanced approach to eating, malnutrition will be right around the corner, Cross said. Even worse, cheap and seemingly easy substitutes for products found in the produce section of grocery stores can lead to all sorts of health problems if consumed regularly over a long period of time.
Processed food on the shelves of gas-station convenience stores is the most readily available food in many rural areas, but is often packed with saturated fats, high levels of sodium and cholesterol.
“That’s a lot of empty calories that encourage obesity and diabetes,” Cross said.
Those effects are usually unavoidable for folks who, unlike the Fialcowitz family, have no viable transportation and therefore no other options. Because of this, the portion of the populous with low or no income is hit even harder by the lack of healthy food.
But some people are fighting back. Kentz Willis, a nutrition and food safety expert from the University of Wyoming Cooperative Extension in Sheridan, said that, while residents of scantily populated regions may have a hard time bringing supermarkets back to town, many are starting to cultivate their own food, often planting small gardens during the growing season.
“There’s a real movement in the region of people starting community gardens. There’s nothing healthier than grabbing something straight out of the ground —maybe washing it first — and then digging in,” Willis said.
Unfortunately, he added, with the climate of most of the Rocky Mountain area, the opportunity to farm can be limited. The growing season in Wyoming isn’t nearly as long as a season in a place like California, he said, so people need to take advantage of it while they can.
In Missoula, Pattie Fialcowitz parks her car next to a local organic food store. She’ll sell some of her crops there — shallots in the winter, a wider variety of cultivated products during the summer months — before swinging by Costco to pick up bulk supplies like toilet paper and cheese. The snow has started up again, falling thick, whipped around by harsh winds.
Winters, she says, poses challenges for people in rural areas. During the summer, however, those who grow crops often sell their surplus to others in their communities. When farmer’s markets are in season, neighbors’ efforts are one of the best solutions to solving the healthy food scarcity issue, adding fresh produce to the diets that need it most.
“The farmer’s markets are popping up all over the place,” she says. “But people have to be looking for it. And many people aren’t.” And with the regular and long disappearance of warm weather, even that option also disappears, leaving long drives and hard, personal choices for people in Dixon and places like it.
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