Historical Evidence of Rural Food Deserts: A Case Study from the Appalachian Coal Fields.
By: Carl DeMuth
What is a rural food desert?
A rural food desert in an area where residents must travel ten or more miles to get to the nearest supermarket. The idea is that these stores charge less for food and have more shelf space, and carry more “healthy” food choices such as fresh meats and produce than small local stores – which are typically convenience stores with gas stations. Ultimately, the biggest problem with rural food deserts is a lack of food access. Many of the people living in rural food deserts are not wealthy and cannot afford transportation to and from these supermarket style grocery stores. When they do have access to transportation, the costs offset the savings offered by supermarkets. Most studies suggest the problems of food deserts can be alleviated by encouraging local growing, selling fresh produce in local stores, and increasing access to public rural transit programs.
Food Deserts in Historic Appalachia
Of many recent studies on food deserts, only a few have focused on regions in Appalachia. I found this very surprising, as many oral histories collected by the National Park Service at the New River Gorge (as part of their Oral History and Historic Photograph Project) suggest that the Appalachian coal fields essentially were food deserts. For example, Elizabeth Lambert commented on the fact that only local place to shop was the company store and that, (very much like a convenience stores), it had very little fresh produce and were characterized by inflated prices. Lambert and others even stated that many companies even required people to shop at their store. (If you want to read some of these oral histories, we have provided links to a few PDF transcripts below).
Historic Solutions to Food Deserts
These commonalities become interesting because early twentieth century mining families developed their own strategies for coping with the problems of rural food deserts. These solutions included buying from local growers, gardening, raising livestock, and creating and using systems of public transportation.
Gardening and Livestock
Multiple sources in the oral history archives claim that people would garden and raise livestock in and around the coal towns. John Luther Whittington stated that people “…raised what they could, and what they couldn’t raise they had to buy at the company store.” Lambert, Whittington, and others talked about growing hogs, chickens, and even cows as a means of diversifying their access to meat. Gardening was even more popular, though plots were often assigned by the coal company and could be very far from a family’s residence. This distance did not deter most miners from gardening as Robert Forren stated that between 60 and 80 percent of families in Elverton, West Virginia would work grow gardens, so that they did not have to purchase as much from the company store.
Lambert spoke of “Peddlers” who would come to sell their goods at the Nuttallburg suspension bridge during the summer, and that she had a one man that she bought most of her produce from when she ran the boarding house in Nuttallburg. Such a system is similar to small farmers markets and roadside stands that exist today, and demonstrates that many modern solutions to rural food deserts have historic roots.
Free or cheap public transportation was also frequently made available to women at the mining camps while their families were working in the mines. Lacy Anderson stated that miner’s wives could ride the trains for free, and would use them to buy food more cheaply from larger towns – thus increasing their food access. Many rural areas still see several trains a day carrying freight. Perhaps finding a way to utilize these trains would be a more economical way to increase food access today, instead of creating expensive bus systems as many modern studies suggest.
However, with these solutions it is important to realize that historic methods for increasing choice in the past may not have resulted in a more varied diet. Rick Wilk pointed out that the earliest historical accounts of the region comment on how Appalachian diets lacked diversity and consisted of the same corn and beans mentioned in the oral histories discussed above. As such bringing fresh produce to these regions, (either through local farming or by introducing fresh produce to local stores), may not be successful because eating habits are steeped in cultural traditions and are difficult to change. Additionally, the discussion of rural food deserts focuses on the west, and does not examine less industrialized countries where issues such as hunger and starvation are more widespread. In these regions many towns do not even have small markets, and supermarkets are nonexistent. In coordination with the case study, these points help to demonstrate that rural food deserts are not a new dilemma but a very old one.
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