ROANOKE, Va. – Food access is a daily challenge for many people across Southwest Virginia.
For the past several years, Carolyn Williams has used Local Environmental Agriculture Project’s (LEAP) mobile market to get her groceries.
“Well number one, it’s fresh food, homegrown and then otherwise you’d have to go out to buy it and it’s heavy,” said Williams.
She uses a walker and lives in an area where convenience stores are much closer than grocery stores.
“You can catch the bus, we have a bus stop right here. You can ride the tail and come back up or you can go right up to where the crosswalk is and go over, but that’s dangerous. Sometimes cars don’t stop,” Williams said.
She is one of many in Southwest Virginia who lives in an identified food desert.
USDA defines a food desert through low access and low income. Low access is at least 33% of the population lives more than a mile (urban areas) or more than 10 miles (rural areas) from a supermarket, supercenter, or large grocery store.
Dr. Kim Niewolny, an associate professor within Virginia Tech’s Department of Agricultural, Leadership, and Community Education said sometimes we don’t realize a community is a food desert.
“I mean I live 15 minutes outside of Blacksburg and our part of the county is considered a food desert and if you look around many many areas, so it’s not just an urban phenomena,” said Niewolny, who also serves as the director of the university’s Center for Food Systems and Community Transformation.
A mile doesn’t sound like much, but to those in a given community, it can be a long distance.
“I think a lot of people take for granted how easy it is to get to the grocery store. I think for a lot of communities in Roanoke and around the country, just hopping in your car and going to the grocery store is a lot more difficult, it involves bus rides, it involves affordability, it involves time,” explain LEAP’s director of programs and operations, Sam Lev.
That’s why the LEAP Mobile Market was created in 2015, to cut down some of those barriers.
“We launched it in 2015 really as a result of a lot of listening to the community and studies that had come out and Carilion Clinic’s Community Health Needs Assessment being one of those that really said people were longing for more access to good quality food around our communities, particularly in Northwest and Southeast Roanoke,” said Lev.
Lev told 10 News that in 2019, the mobile market made 5,400 transactions during 483 hours on the road serving Roanoke’s USDA-defined food deserts. The mobile market makes seven stops a week selling fresh food from Virginia farmers. That same year, 57% of those sales utilized LEAP’s Healthy Food Incentives so the majority of customers receive SNAP, Medicaid, WIC or other financial assistance.
“We can plop a grocery store down. We can plop a farmers market down in the middle of any community, but if people can’t afford it they’re not going to shop there. So we do things like offer double dollars for folks who receive SNAP, Medicaid or WIC so they can come to the farmers market spend 10 bucks and get $20 to spend on fresh fruits and vegetables,” Lev said.
It’s not just Roanoke.
In 2019, within the Blue Ridge region, which includes the New River Valley, Roanoke, Lynchburg and everything in between, 1,115 SNAP shoppers at participating markets bought more than $74,000 in food utilizing Virginia Fresh Match incentives, like the one at LEAP.
Neiwolny believes the work that LEAP, Lynchburg Grows and several others do is just a piece of the puzzle.
“We need to talk about not just the individual issues people are facing by not having food, but the structural inequities built into our municipal policies making decisions at our national and state level to address food insecurity,” said Neiwolny.
And that starts with not calling these communities food deserts.
“It (a neighborhood with low food access) was designed that way. It’s not a naturally-forming community that doesn’t have access to food in ways other communities might, so there’s an inequity built-in that definition to begin with,” Dr. Neiwolny said.
So to accurately describe the segregation often based on race, class and gender, Niewolny and other professionals use the terms “food apartheid” or “food justice.”
To get that justice, she said investments need to be made.
“Not just financial investment, social investment, cultural investment, who gets to decide where food is, who gets to decide who has access to it. These are very real questions, ones that are also organized around race access to financial resources,” said Niewolny.
The work to get those investments are already underway.
“We’re involved with some city partners. We’re involved in some statewide collaborations to try and make sure access to good food is part of every conversation; it’s part of the health conversation, it’s part of the economy conversation and it’s how we build sustainable healthy communities,” said Lev.
Niewolny said those conversations cannot be all talk, there needs to be plenty of listening too.
“We need to understand the experiences. It’s one thing to write about it, it’s another thing to experience and have that voice at the table to say ‘This is what my community faces.’”
In addition to the mobile market, LEAP runs four community gardens in the city of Roanoke. They provide neighbors with the space, tools and seeds they need to grow their own food in that garden.