‘Food desert' epidemic: A problem in Wilmington - WECT TV6-WECT.com:News, weather & sports Wilmington, NC

‘Food desert' epidemic: A problem in Wilmington

Statistics show that thousands of folks are living in food deserts -- places where more than 20 percent of the people live below the poverty line and 33 percent live a mile or more from a grocery store. Statistics show that thousands of folks are living in food deserts -- places where more than 20 percent of the people live below the poverty line and 33 percent live a mile or more from a grocery store.
Feast Down East is an initiative to connect low-income farmers with low-income consumers. Feast Down East is an initiative to connect low-income farmers with low-income consumers.

WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) – Boasting beautiful beaches, fine dining, a booming film industry and tourist attractions, to some, neighborhoods where there is little access to healthy, affordable food may seem non-existent in a place like the Port City.

But statistics show that thousands of folks are living in food deserts -- places where more than 20 percent of the people live below the poverty line and 33 percent live a mile or more from a grocery store. In Wilmington alone, 16,000 people live in food deserts.

WECT's Ashlea Kosikowski recently uncovered the locations of area food deserts to learn more on the hardships that families living in such communities face.

Wilmington resident Ernest Seward, who lives in a food desert, makes lunch for his wife inside of his kitchen at the couple's home in the Rankin Terrace community.

A glance inside of his refrigerator reveals bare, empty shelves -- evidence of the struggles his family faces. Ernest looks after his 61-year-old wife who became disabled after a stroke, and he says getting to the grocery store is a challenge.

"It's very difficult," he said. "Most of us here are on fixed incomes. Then, we have to pay for the bus fare or cab fare to get to the store, and pay to get back."

To even get to the store, it can take up to two and a half hours via bus.

In Wilmington, there are eight food deserts, and a map showing their locations reveals that all of them are located near public housing developments in the city.

Dr. Leslie Hossfeld is a sociology professor at UNCW, and she has been studying the area's food deserts.

"Since Wilmington is a pretty affluent community and we think of it as a tourist destination…as a prosperous county; but we have huge pockets of great poverty," said Hossfield, adding that the deserts are part of a dangerous and growing epidemic. "There are enormous consequences on one's health over the long haul, so, greater risk of diabetes, increased weight gain, very real problems for low income communities."

She says food deserts are one of the reasons that America is seeing growing rates of obesity.

"Unhealthy food is cheap and it is readily available at fast food locations and convenience stores," she said. "Some of our research shows convenience stores don't sell anything raw or fresh because it is easier to sell alcohol, candy, cigarettes."

Hossfeld's research also explores solutions to these problems.

"Being aware of these food deserts and some of these infrastructure problems, getting bus routes that fit people's needs, and having grocery stores -- not convenience stores -- that have affordable food. These are really critical issues."

One of the ways Hossfeld is trying to address these issues is with Feast Down East, which is an initiative she started to connect low-income farmers with low-income consumers.

The mobile market sets up shop in Rankin Terrance every Friday, bringing fresh produce to those who have a hard time getting to the store.

Joan Johnson, who lives in the neighborhood, volunteers at the market.

"If you don't have a car, a lot of times you have to beg somebody and then pay them to go to the store," she said. "It is so time consuming. By the time you go and get back to the store, you are too tired to cook the food!"

Erin O'Donnell, who also volunteers at the market, says it also helps those on a fixed income.

"Not only the transportation piece of it, but the cost of it at stores," said O'Donnell. "We are able to sell this at a reduced price. So, people are more likely to purchase here than the grocery store ‘cause it costs less."

That's exactly why Seward shops at the market.

"The store charged me a $1.69 for a green pepper," said Seward. "I didn't appreciate that."

Such dissatisfaction is why he's growing his own vegetable garden and sowing his own seeds in the middle of a food desert.

Wilmington isn't the only spot in the area considered to be a food desert.

To look at other area food deserts, click here.

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