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Original Research

Community adaptations to an impending food desert in rural Appalachia, USA

Submitted: 3 February 2016
Revised: 22 August 2016
Accepted: 13 September 2016
Published: 3 November 2016

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Author(s) : Miller WC, Rogalla D, Spencer D, Zia N, Griffith BN, Heinsberg HB.

Citation: Miller WC, Rogalla D, Spencer D, Zia N, Griffith BN, Heinsberg HB.  Community adaptations to an impending food desert in rural Appalachia, USA. Rural and Remote Health (Internet) 2016; 16: 3901. Available: (Accessed 18 October 2017)


Introduction:  The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) describes a food desert as an urban neighborhood or rural town without ready access to fresh, healthy, and affordable food. An estimated 2.3 million rural Americans live in food deserts. One goal of the USDA is to eliminate food deserts. However, at a time when some food deserts are being eliminated, hundreds of grocery stores are closing, causing other food deserts to arise. The literature is scarce on how a community adapts to an impending food desert. Alderson, West Virginia, USA (population 1184) rallied to face an impending food desert when the only grocery store in town closed in December 2014. This study investigated how this small rural community adapted to its oncoming food desert.
Methods:  A community member survey was administered to 155 Alderson families (49%) to determine how the new food desert affected family food acquisition and storage behaviors. A restaurant survey was given to the town’s four restaurants to determine how the food desert affected their businesses. Sales data for a new food hub (Green Grocer) was obtained to see if this new initiative offset the negative effects of the food desert. ANOVA and t-tests were used to compare group numerical data. Two group response rates were compared by testing the equality of two proportions. Categorical data were analyzed with the χ2 or frequency distribution analysis. Group averages are reported as mean ± standard error of the mean. Significance for all analyses was set at p<0.05.
Results:  Even though 86% of the population shopped at the new Green Grocer, 77% did most of their shopping at a store at least 17.7 km (11 miles) from home. The number of long-distance monthly shopping trips made after the food desert (3.3±0.4) did not change significantly (p=0.16) from the number before the food desert (2.8±0.3). Price comparisons among the Green Grocer and three distant supermarkets showed a 30% savings by traveling to distant supermarkets. Frequency of monthly restaurant visits did not change after the emergence of the food desert (2.98±0.54 vs 3.05±0.51, p=0.85). However, restaurant patrons requested to buy fresh produce and dairy from the restaurants to use for their own home cooking. Food pantry use increased by 43%, with community members requesting more fresh produce, meat, and dairy. The food desert triggered a 21% increase in home gardening and an 11% increase in home food preservation.
Conclusions:  Opening a Green Grocer offset only some of the effects of the food desert, because community members use it as a convenience store to purchase fresh produce and dairy products that families may lack before their next long-distance trip to a supermarket. Alderson’s low-income residents now rely more heavily on food pantry assistance, while a small number of other residents have started gardening and food preservation. The first factor governing food acquisition behavior in rural Appalachia is food pricing, with the proximity of food access coming in second. How to overcome these two major barriers to food security in the midst of current economics and marketing remains to be answered.

Key words: food access, food availability, food desert, food habits, food insecurity, food security, food shopping, food sources, food supply, rural Appalachia, USA.

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