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Mississippi ‘Food Deserts’ Fuel Obesity Epidemic

June 3, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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As the government highlights the growing health risks of childhood obesity, Betty Ann Bowser reports from the Mississippi Delta on how so-called "food deserts" keep some communities from access to healthy food.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now: the connections between obesity and geography.

Health correspondent Betty Ann Bowser reports on the prevalence of so-called food deserts in the South. It’s the second of her two-part report on America’s obesity epidemic.

The Health Unit is a partnership with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The small towns of the Mississippi Delta have a tempo of life all their own. The landscape is dotted with rural enclaves like Lambert, here in the Northwest part of the state, population 1, 700. It’s the kind of place where everybody knows each other. On Sunday morning, the good book rules supreme, so people here have no trouble getting their souls nourished.

The problem is getting nourishment for their bodies. Lambert is what’s known as a food desert, because finding a place that sells good fresh food is like looking for a needle in a haystack.

If you live in Lambert and you need groceries, your only option is this convenience store. On the day we were here, there were no fresh fruits or vegetables, a few cold cuts, and the prices were high.

The Department of Agriculture says 23.5 million Americans, including 6.5 million children, live in low-income areas more than a mile from a supermarket.

Lifelong resident Jennifer Hoskins says it’s not easy to find healthy food for her family.

JENNIFER HOSKINS, resident of Lambert, Miss.: It’s really hard, because, you know, when I was coming up, we had greens and gardens and all that. But now you have to buy produce. So, it’s real hard for the kids. I mean, and the majority of them, they eat like pizzas. And that’s obesity.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Like so many Delta town, Lambert was once the heart of a thriving farming community in Quitman County. Most of its residents are African-American and descendants of sharecroppers.

As farm workers were replaced by machines, many found work in nearby textile mills, but, over the past decade, those jobs have also dried up. Today, nearly half the town lives below the federal poverty line.

JENNIFER HOSKINS: Well, first was, growing up a girl here in this town, everything was here. We even had dry goods stores. We had a grocery storm. We had a pharmacy. We had all of that, a doctor’s office. But now it’s nothing here.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Except in a few cases, the food that’s grown here is rarely eaten here. That’s because the rich farmland is used to grow commodity crops that are shipped out.

The closest grocery store is over three miles away, and, even there, produce is pricey, and locals say, often, the pickings are slim. We weren’t permitted inside with our cameras. It’s more than a 20-mile drive to get to a store with better and less expensive selections.

And, in this part of Mississippi, there is no public transportation, no taxis. In American food deserts, gas stations, convenience stores, and fast-food restaurants are the only places to buy something to eat. And, when money is tight, the dollar menu at the local fast-food joint is tempting.

At the only McDonald’s in Quitman County, the salad menu isn’t served, so it’s burgers, McNuggets and the like.

DR. AL RAUSA, Mississippi State Department of Health: The variety of the foods that are available are poor, poor-quality nutrients.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Dr. Al Rausa is the district health officer for 18 counties in Northwest Mississippi. He’s been working as a public health official in the Delta for 40 years.

DR. AL RAUSA: I had a malnutrition problem when I arrived. I have a malnutrition problem now. Back then, it was the absence of food or the unavailability of food that was the problem. And now I have got this abundance of food.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The problem now, Rausa says, is that the food people eat is loaded with calories and fat, and they’re leading more sedentary lives. Medical studies show that people who live in these food deserts have higher rates of obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes than those in areas served by mainstream grocers.

MICHELLE OBAMA, first lady: We can’t tell people to buy fresh food if there’s no place to buy it, right?

BETTY ANN BOWSER: First lady Michelle Obama has zeroed in on food deserts as part of her signature campaign to end childhood obesity. And the Obama administration pledged $400 million to help underserved areas.

Last month, she visited the state’s capital, Jackson.

MICHELLE OBAMA: If you have seen it, you know how hard it is. So we have got to make it easier. We have got to eliminate food deserts and make sure that there are more grocery stores and farmers markets in communities.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: But it’s not all bleak.

A group of local growers and community organizers is trying to expand farmers markets in the Delta and get their produce into local school cafeterias.

Farmer Cornelius Toole is part of an effort to help students grow their own vegetables.

CORNELIUS TOOLE, farmer: We just got to teach our kids about healthy eating, and teach them where food comes from, and teach them what they need to know about it.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: And, at the New Mount Zion Baptist Church in Lambert, Pastor Michael Jossell and his wife, Evelyn, do their part.

EVELYN JOSSELL, New Mount Zion Baptist Church: We don’t just grow vegetables for ourselves, because our children are grown, basically. We grow enough vegetables to feed the entire congregation, especially the elderly.

We have a healthier congregation initiative. We have partnered with other congregations in the community. We feel we’re growing a community garden. That’s on a larger scale. It’s not going to change it overnight, but I think, if we’re consistent, and we do it collectively and collaboratively, then I think we can make a difference.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: While locals pray government incentives will encourage mainstream grocer to come to their communities, they know the solutions to changing the food landscape of the Delta won’t come easy, and won’t come from Washington alone.