Bridging the Great Health Divide | Living in a food desert

One community looks to grow and supply their own food
Residents of Elliott County, Ky. only have access to Save-A-Lot, the nearest grocery store is about 30 minutes away.
Updated: Jun. 15, 2021 at 6:07 PM EDT
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ELLIOTT COUNTY, Ky. (WSAZ) - Those who live in a food desert struggle to get access to affordable and healthy food.

“When you’re on a fixed income, it just makes it hard,” said Eddie Skaggs.

As a lifelong resident of Elliott County, Skaggs says it’s becoming harder and harder to find quality, nutritious food, especially after the IGA, one of the only grocery stores in the area, closed its doors a few years ago.

“To get anything worth anything, you have to go to another county,” he said.

Now residents have to choose between a Save-A-Lot, Dollar General or Family Dollar. The closest major grocery store is nearly 30 minutes away.

“It’s hard to find what you’re looking for at these stores around here, like vegetables and stuff like that and meat,” Skaggs said.

But it’s not just store selection that customers struggle with. Before the pandemic, more than 20% of residents identified as food insecure. More than 28% of those who live there rely on SNAP benefits. Experts say the pandemic has only made the problem worse.

Without access to healthful foods, people living in food deserts are often at a higher risk of diet-related conditions such as obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.

Keith Center went away for college but returned home to his roots to help bring education to his community. He now works for the University of Kentucky Ag Extension office in the county.

It’s an area hit hard by a shift in the economy, following the tobacco buyouts, farmers are having to find new and innovative ways to grow and harvest a crop.

“They would rather have that produce grown on the farms than go into the grocery store, because they want to know, ‘where does my food come from? ‘” he said.

Center believes there’s power in teaching and training students who then go on to show new ways and the use of technology to some of the more seasoned farmers.

“The youth is a key to your community,” he said. “If you don’t educate them, then they’re going to leave the community to go find better-paying jobs and careers.”

That’s why high school student Taylor Whitley is trying to get his produce directly from the dirt to the dining room table.

“I keep some of our local restaurants with lettuce or anything else I have pretty good,” he says.

He not only supplies several local restaurants but also sells his produce and meat at the farmers market. Held every Tuesday and Friday from 8 a.m. until sellout.

“I feel like I’m helping people a little bit,” said Whitley said.

Farmers at the market are now equipped and certified to accepting WIC benefits and senior vouchers.

“Trying to take the market to them instead of them coming to us, and that’s really played a big role,” said Center.

About 19 farmers have signed up to participate in this years farmer’s market. Growers range from 12 years old to 80 years old.

The market runs through October.

“I believe sustainability is going to be the biggest part,” said Center. “As the average age of the American farmer increases, if you don’t have youth coming back and taking over those family farms, It’s going to be a thing of the past.”

Center hopes these programs will expand the knowledge of the community and instead of having to drive dozens of miles, they can visit their own backyard garden or orchard and also stop in at the Farmers Market.

To learn more about the Elliott County AG Extension office, click here.

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