Food Deserts in Appalachia: The Impacts of COVID-19 on Families and Children
October 6, 2020
By Elinor Broy, College Intern
Not only are rates of unemployment, homelessness, poverty, and food insecurity continuing to rise in Ohio and across the country due to COVID-19, but also, more families and children are living in food deserts with limited access to healthy and affordable nutrients. With local businesses and stores closing and corporate grocery chains full of empty shelves, many lower income, rural communities do not have sufficient access to basic needs, including food.
The detrimental effects of COVID-19 have resulted in more families qualifying for SNAP benefits and longer food pantry lines, but with less fresh and healthy food resources to accommodate these increasing needs. According to the Brookings Institution, currently there are 14 million children in the United States in need of immediate food assistance.
Government programs, such as the Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer (P-EBT), were created to help families through this challenging time, and while this has been helpful for many, this benefit program has not yet been renewed for the 2020/2021 school year. The P-EBT program was shown to effectively mitigate food insecurity, and it must be renewed for the remainder of this school year. Congress must get ahead of the problem and address the basic needs of our children, ensuring they receive adequate amounts of food, especially while distance learning.
According to 2020 KIDS COUNT data from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which measures indicators of child well-being, families living in Appalachian states had some of the lowest levels of household income and were in the bottom rankings for overall child well-being. Further a 2012 USDA report found that rural regions in the Midwest, especially of low income and high unemployment, are more likely to be food deserts.
With Ohio home to many impoverished rural counties, such as Vinton and Scioto, there are numerous food deserts throughout the state. A rural county is considered a food desert when the closest grocery store is at least 10 miles away defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. With grocery stores being a major source of affordable fruits and vegetables, lack of access leads to a lower quality food environment as fast food chains and convenience stores become the only unhealthy food options available.
Most fast food chains and convenience stores serve unhealthy processed foods, or fringe foods. These are foods that are low in nutrients but high in fat and sugar caloric content and do not comply with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s food plate. If a child’s diet is composed mainly of processed foods, this can have major impacts on their overall health and well-being in the short and long-term. A non-nutritious diet results in increased risk for child obesity along with the development of chronic illnesses such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and hypertension.
Children who experience food insecurity and live in food deserts are some of the most vulnerable. Decreased access to food and nutrition can affect growth and development, academic progress, and future health outcomes. In fact, according to Feeding America, there is significant research linking food insecurity and poor child health and behavioral outcomes at every age and stage of development:
- Food-insecure women are more likely to experience birth complications
- Low birthweight among infants is more common in countries with higher rates of child food insecurity
- Children facing food insecurity may face greater levels of developmental and health issues such as anemia and asthma or oral health problems
- Food insecurity and hunger is linked with poorer physical health which is a deterrent for children engaging in their education
- At school, hungry children are at greater risk of falling behind their peers both academically and socially; children experiencing hunger are more likely to have lower reading and mathematics test scores and exhibit behavioral problems including hyperactivity, aggression, and anxiety
There are several potential policy solutions to address this issue. Ways to increase healthy and nutritious food availability include:
- Funding affordable grocery stores, affordable markets, backyard and community gardens, and food assistance programs
- Education and training on food production, preparation, and nutrition
- Enrolling eligible persons into government nutrition programs
- Supporting food industry entrepreneurs
- Encouraging community residents to be involved in food system planning
In addition, funding sustainable food projects helps lower income communities gain access to healthy and nutritious food and address economic, social, and environmental issues that affect the food system.
Specifically, at CDF-Ohio, we are calling on Congress to include a 15% boost in SNAP benefits in the next COVID relief package, as well as extending the P-EBT Program, and removing barriers to SNAP and WIC access like redeterminations and required in-person interviews.
We must speak up for our children, advocating for policies and initiatives that will improve their lives and take concrete action to address food insecurity and food deserts in Ohio.