Onslow County resident Nicole Zurcher lives in a food desert, and it creates fear for her child’s life.
Zurcher lives off US 17, in between Sneads Ferry and Jacksonville, and has a child who has allergic reactions to multiple foods. She has to travel anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour to buy organic food for her family in order to ensure her child’s safety.
“There are five stores that we can shop from,” Zurcher said. “Yes, most stores carry one or two items of organic but none of them carry a large amount and are consistent. It can be very frustrating for us and scary at times, especially recently. When I go to the stores now, I am never sure if I am going to be able to buy milk and other foods. When I ask the stores, they say that they don’t even know what they are getting in or how much or even when it is going to arrive.”
The CDC defines food deserts as areas that have poor access to healthy and affordable food, and these deserts have become an issue in many parts of Onslow.
According to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) Economic Research Service, areas with homes that have both low vehicle and walking access to a grocery store include areas around Bell Fork Road, Piney Green/Rocky Run and White Oak.
Sneads Ferry is another major problem area.
The unincorporated area with more than 2,500 residents only has one grocery store, a Food Lion, that not everyone has easy access to.
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“We moved here from California and food has been a big issue since we moved here,” Zurcher said. “Everyone tells us that the organic movement hasn’t come here yet like in California, so, I travel down to Wilmington and clear across Jacksonville just to buy organic food.”
Where to go?
It’s not only organic food, though, and the USDA’s listed problem areas don’t necessarily include them all.
Angel Rhoades, who lives off Catherine Lake Road in Jacksonville, said no matter which way she goes, it’s a six-to-eight mile trip.
Rhoades said she usually plans out her shopping trips ahead of time, combining sales and coupons, but that if she needs something last minute, she’s out of luck.
“I used to be able to get most last minute things at Family Dollar on 258, near 111, but since they closed down, it’s harder to get stuff,” Rhoades said. “For instance, I made chocolate chip cookies about two weeks ago, but ran out of brown sugar. Sent my husband down to Dollar General and they were out, so he had to drive to Richlands for me to get it.”
She said she often sees an elderly woman walking down 258 several times a week just to get things from Dollar General, rain or shine.
“I have no idea where she lives, but she walks a long way to get what she needs,” said Rhoades. “I think a grocery store would, in this area, would be great for a lot of people. Everyone complains about how there are too many stores in Jacksonville, and I agree, so let’s move some of them out to the middle of the county “
Onslow County Health Department Community Relations Officer Victoria Reyes said food deserts are often located in low income areas.
“In a lot of the research, especially within the North Carolina 2030 plan, some of the research links back to income, along with that, relates to the likelihood of living in some of those food deserts,” Reyes said. “So, lower income neighborhoods tend to be in some of those food deserts, and a lot of time they are some of our larger minority population.”
NC Cooperative Extension’s Marie Bowman, who is the Onslow Farmers Market’s manager, said food deserts don’t just impact physical health, but also mental.
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Reyes agreed saying one of the health department’s focuses for their community health improvement plans, is social determinance of health, alongside other factors of overall health and well being, and the importance of being a healthy community altogether.
“So, if you don’t have access to healthy foods, or good education or transportation, that affects you in other ways,” Reyes said.
How to help
Despite all this, there are programs and resources for those around Onslow, whether they can’t afford transportation to the grocery store, or can’t afford groceries in general.
Reyes said the health department is partnered up with Sandy Run on a program called Healthy for Life by Aramark and the American Heart Association. The program focuses on healthy eating and eating with a budget.
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“Again, you’re talking about possibly individuals who might not have that access, they might not have grown up eating a certain way,” Reyes said. “So it also is like, mmm I don’t know if I want to try this vegetable or not, so, it allows us to introduce some different vegetables, some different foods some people might not have ever tried, along with that budgeting and helping to make that grocery list and, or even doing like healthy swaps.
“If you’re so used to cooking a certain way, how can you try something different, and so, I think it’s also that education that goes along with not only having access to the healthy foods, but being able to buy those healthy foods , and what actually are healthy foods, as well.”
Bowman said a lot of what they try to do is help people realize how to prepare foods in a healthy way. She said a lot of this community’s recipes include frying, so trying to modify some recipes, like roasting instead of frying, can be a big help.
She said the boom of air fryers has made a big impact in the reduction of oil.
Other programs include one out of New Bern that assists with food banks and distributions, and they get their dispersement out of Raleigh. Bowman said she assisted with one on Monday, though it didn’t have the amount to supplement as many people for as long as they usually can.
She said it was sad for the families that came out, but that the systems are overwhelmed.
“We were told that the families could go to New Bern and shop on a daily basis,” Bowman said. “But these are families that are on limited income, many of them are relying on neighbors for transportation, so driving to New Bern wasn’t the solution. So, we are reaching out to other organizations to help stock pantries and looking at other avenues to try to fill those needs.”
She said because of the struggle, high school clubs and scouts are doing food drives.
“One of the local troops at Sneads Ferry is actually trying to coordinate doing a food drive so that food will stay within their charter and within their community, so, they’re helping their neighbors,” Bowman said. “The need has just grown at the start of the pandemic, and it just keeps continuing to grow exponentially.”
Bowman said SNAP has been working on adding bonus bucks to their EBT redemptions to assist those in getting more of what they need, and other programs have also been including fees that allow residents to get an Uber, or bus pass, so they can get themselves to a grocery store or market.
“Trying to figure out ways to get the food to the people,” Bowman said.
Reporter Morgan Starling can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.