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Finding Food in a Southeast Ohio Desert


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For residents of Vinton County, deserts are not just places found out west and seen in the movies. They aren’t places with extreme temperatures and no water. Deserts to Vinton County residents are places without food.

No dessert in the desert

Nutrition experts consider Vinton County a Food Desert– an area isolated from fresh foods like produce and meat. Since 2013, Vinton County has had no grocery stores in the entire county.

Food deserts don't have easily accessible food like fruits and vegetables.
Food deserts don’t have easily accessible fresh food like fruits and vegetables.

Even when there was a grocery store, there was only one for more than 13,000 residents spread across the entire county. Without a supermarket, residents of Vinton County are forced to go out of town just to feed themselves and their families.

For many, that means driving to places like Athens more than 25 miles away, which has Kroger, Walmart and several family-owned stores, plus the weekly farmers market.

One researcher found that nearly 9,000 people in Vinton County travel more than 20 minutes to get food.

Map of food deserts in the U.S.
Map of food deserts in the U.S.

 

Under the poverty line

Even driving 25 minutes to Athens can be problematic for some in Vinton County since 18.9% of the population lives below the poverty line.

While many in Vinton County do have access to a vehicle, they have to limit their driving in order to save money on gas. The average American family makes a trip to the grocery store at least once a week, the people we talked to in Vinton County say they go every two weeks or even just once a month.

Glennis Erickson, a senior citizen living on a fixed income, is one Vinton County resident who only goes once a month, so she carefully plans each trip to the grocery store.

“It’s terrible. You have to stock up for all the meals you’re going to need, and you have to plan,” said Erickson. “I write down everything I’ve run out of, keep a running list the whole time so I don’t miss getting something that I need in my kitchen.”

No people, no profit

It’s no secret that businesses seek to maximize profit. So when you live in the least populated county in the state of Ohio, you tend to get overlooked. That is what has happened to people in Vinton County time after time when they tried to attract a new grocery store. Those who live in the county have lost hope after too many letdowns.

Rhoda Price has lived in Vinton County for 37 years and now advocates for a grocery store to give her home a chance.

“Mainly some of your big stores are really concerned because we are a small county, and we’re very poor,” said Price.

The same disappointment can be seen in the faces of the people Price works with each day as the director of Vinton County’s senior center.

“It’s very disappointing, because we are here. We’re very much alive,” said Price. These people are just as important. I don’t care how they are economically.”

Going the distance

In order to ensure Vinton County’s senior citizens, who are often limited in mobility, get the nutrition needed to survive, the senior center puts lots of miles on its decade-old minivan.

Stacey Bedy works with the senior center and delivers hundreds of Meals on Wheels a week.  She said transportation is the biggest problem for seniors in rural food deserts. She explained most aren’t able to drive 30 to 40 miles one way to buy groceries. And if they are able, Bedy said many seniors would have to buy enough food to last for a few weeks, which can put a financial strain on their fixed incomes.

“Its been a long time since we’ve had a grocery store,” said Bedy. “It’s been rough on the elderly because some of them don’t have vehicles. And the prices at the dollar store are jacked up so high some of them can’t get everything they need.”

To help, the Vinton County Senior Center serves and delivers daily meals and offers grocery-shopping assistance. In 2016 the center traveled 107, 555 miles to deliver 10, 491 meals. In order to receive meals, Vinton County residents over the age of 60 just have to call the center.

In comparison, the Athens County Meals on Wheels program delivered nearly four times as many meals as Vinton County at 42,253, but only drove a fraction of the distance at 70,497 miles.

Campbell’s is coming

The grocery shopping dilemma could soon come to an end for those in Vinton County when a family-owned business breaks ground in March.

Campbell's Market is slated to open in Vinton County. The Market currently has two locations in Muskingum County.
Campbell’s Market is slated to open in Vinton County. The Market currently has two locations in Muskingum County.

With some government assistance, the owner of the Muskingum County based Campbell’s Market has been working with the folks of Vinton County to build their first supermarket since 2013.

Co-owner of Campbell’s market, Rick Campbell Jr., believes his store is a good fit for Vinton County since his other two locations in Muskingum County are demographically similar.

Residents of Vinton County couldn’t be more excited to see the Campbell’s come to the rescue.

“The Campbell’s are coming. The Campbell’s are coming,” is what Price exclaimed when talking about the potential market.

“A grocery store here where I can go every week and not have to carry a month’s worth at a time will be wonderful,” said Erickson.

The wait is almost over for Vinton County as Campbell’s Market is scheduled to open by the end of summer, relieving a food desert in Southeast Ohio.