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Food desert solutions

Help from locals and e-commerce

By ZOË HAGGARD - zhaggard@t-g.com
Posted 8/2/22

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has identified at least 6,500 food desert tracks since the early 2000s. A food desert is an area that has limited access to food retailers, whether that be through …

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Food desert solutions

Help from locals and e-commerce

Posted

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has identified at least 6,500 food desert tracks since the early 2000s. A food desert is an area that has limited access to food retailers, whether that be through lack of transportation or simply due to the age or health of the persons living in that community.  

The USDA has measured the distance to the nearest healthy food retailer, using the locations of supermarkets and large grocery stores as a proxy. They found about 13.5 million people in these census tracts have low access to sources of healthy food.  

The phenomenon of food deserts can be found in both urban and rural areas, but the commonality is impoverished areas. Food deserts tend to have smaller populations, higher rates of abandoned or vacant homes, and residents who have lower levels of education, lower incomes, and higher unemployment, according to the USDA report.  

Other factors that can go into food deserts is people’s lack of transportation. For example, one census tract in west Shelbyville has a relatively high number of households (131 of 2561 total households, or 5.1 percent) without vehicles that are more than one-half mile from a supermarket, according to the USDA’s 2020 data.  

But providing fresh food for these kinds of areas begins with the producers themselves. Changes in how people buy food, like through companies like Market Wagon, are one way. They partner with around 1,800 local food producers across the country to deliver fresh, local produce to otherwise food deficient areas.  

“Our mission with Market Wagon is actually to enable the food producers to sell their products,” said CEO and founder Nick Carter. Carter himself is an Indiana farmer and he wanted the ability to sell his produce efficiently to customers.  

“Last mile” is the industry’s term for grocery delivery, and according to Carter, is one of the more economical ways to solve this problem of food deserts.  

“Finding local food is very difficult. Typically, at a farmer’s market, they’re not convenient to get to either by location or by timing,” he said.  

Market Wagon relies on e-commerce to deliver fresh food to a person’s door. They look at an hour’s drive radius from their distribution centers (for example, they aggregate all orders at a fulfillment center outside of Nashville).  

“So, when you get a delivery, it’s actually aggregating items from as many different farms as you want to order from . . . . So that allows us to consolidate what the farmers would do on their own,” Carter explained.  

Prices are still going to be comparable to farmer’s market prices. However, Carter said, “without this cost-control that we provide, the farmers wouldn’t be able to get their produce to your doorstep.”  

“The more volume a producer can do, the more economical it is for them. So, we can increase their market so they can afford to sell it at a lower price.”  

One local farm that has partnered with Market Wagon is RC Farms, a third-generation vegetable and meat producer owned by Samuel Carlton and his family in Rockvale.  

Carlton’s grandfather sold produce to the HG Hill food stores in Nashville. In 1998, they experienced a buy-out for raising tobacco, so the farm went into raising vegetables.  

Carlton said 8 months ago, they partnered with Market Wagon to expand their reach. Growing everything from sweet corn to tomatoes, Carlton said they handle around 400 customers a week as they host these farmer’s markets in Nashville, Chattanooga, Knoxville, Birmingham, Ala., and Atlanta, Ga.  

“The biggest thing is we’re more able to sell. People are wanting fresh produce more than they ever had. Especially after the pandemic, people are feeling more insecure about their food,” said Carlton.  

For now, the biggest challenge Carlton says they are facing is the price of fuel. He said he spent $1,300 in fuel to go to markets (not counting fuel for tractors.) “We’re paying over twice what we should be.”  

Transportation is one of the factors of food deserts, and with fuel prices so high, less and less people are willing to travel far for better, fresher produce—in a sense, creating a food desert, especially since the farmers can’t drive or have to increase their prices.  

“People need to understand that sometimes local produce is going to be higher than what you can go buy at Kroger or Walmart....We don’t grow as much as somebody with 1,000 acres,” Carlton explained.  

On their 20-acre property at 11455 Mt. Pleasant Road, RC Farms has a store where they sell produce as well as canned goods. Carlton said they even accept food stamps and cash cards, which is one way they hope to help the community have affordable access to fresh produce.  

“That helps people who ordinarily couldn’t go to a farmer’s market,” Carlton said.  

It’s not common, according to Carter. “I commend that farmer for being able to do that. It’s also something that’s been only allowed in person at farmer’s markets or their farm stores,” he said.  

Carter said the USDA is still “behind the times” in that they’ve allowed only a few retailers to accept food stamps or SNAP benefits in an online transaction. Carter said Market Wagon has applied to be able to do this but has been denied four times. “But we’re trying,” he says.  

Not to mention there’s better quality of product when it comes to buying fresh and local. Carlton said they try to be at least 90 percent pesticide and herbicide free.  

“I wouldn’t feed you something I wouldn’t feed my own children.” He says that’s one of the biggest benefits of buying locally—you know where your food comes from.  

Carlton added that he enjoys being independent in how he makes a living. But being a part of something like Market Wagon, Carlton says they know what they’ve sold and what they need to sell. “You’re not just loading up for the heck of it.”  

He’s very grateful, in return. “The Lord’s blessed us. And we’re able to take care of what we’ve got.” 

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