By Anthony Dewitt
Cronkite News Service
WASHINGTON – There’s nothing simple about Phoenix resident Alex Turley’s simple trip to the grocery store to buy the basics.
He might walk more than a mile in triple-digit temperatures so that he can catch the light rail, bus or rent a Zipcar.
From there, it’s about a 15-minute mass-transit ride to the grocery store, which limits what he can get — if he buys too much, it could prove difficult to carry it all home in the heat.
“I honestly go through periods where I don’t have a lot of food because it’s a pain,” said Turley, 29, the night assistant manager at the Wyndham Hotel in downtown Phoenix.
He is among the 13.6 percent of Arizonans who live in a “food desert,” a low-income area with low access to a grocery store, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture study.
Arizona far exceeds the national average of 4.8 percent of people in food deserts, according to the report from Agriculture’s Economic Research Service. The report also said that 10.3 percent of Arizona’s housing units are in food deserts, compared to national average of 2.2 percent of homes.
The report is based on census tracts and 2000 Census numbers. Authors said they expect the situation might be worse when they update the report with 2005 Census numbers. Michele Ver Ploeg, an economist with ERS, believes Arizona will be worse off when numbers are updated because of the economic crisis.
“Arizona was especially hard hit,” said Ver Ploeg. “I would expect that all over as budgets got worse . . . stores were going out of business.”
While rural areas have typically been associated with food deserts, the report tells another story: About 75 percent of food-desert tracts are urban and 25 percent are rural. People who live more than a mile from a grocery in a city may be in a food desert; the distance increases to 10 miles in the country.
A lack of grocery stores and inadequate public transportation — in rural and urban areas — leaves many food-desert communities dependent for basic needs on convenience stores, which tend to be more expensive than full-service groceries.
Turley said he is more focused on buying food each day than buying a healthy meal, depending on fast food, restaurants and his job to eat.
“Unfortunately, my diet has suffered quite a bit because the closest thing for me is Circle K,” Turley said. “I am lucky I do get a meal on shift. Yesterday I had a burrito at Taco Bell and my shift meal.”
The difficulties can be even more pronounced in rural areas.
“The two miles in the city can sometimes grow to 10 miles in rural areas,” said Brian Simpson, a spokesman for the Arizona Association of Food Banks.
“People don’t get that if you are a struggling or low-income, all of the sudden two miles, especially in the heat of summer, is a big deal,” he said.
And even in poor, rural communities with access to a grocery, the foods being offered are not always healthy, critics say.
Debra Emmanuelle, who helped found the Verde Food Council near Sedona in 2009, describes grocery stores there greeting customers with tubs of lard, and produce sections barren of anything green.
“At least 85 percent of the food in the grocery store is not nutritious, it is filler food and people have forgotten that,” Emmanuelle said.
She said that lack of nutritious food is part of the reason for an “epidemic” of obesity and diabetes in the Northern Arizona area she serves. Residents there know it is a problem, but they have not changed their diets, she said, “because they do not know how, it (the food offered at the grocery) is just what’s available.”
As in the city, she said convenience stores end up being the only grocery store in poor rural areas.
Convenience stores are trying to improve their offerings, said an industry official, but they are simply not set up to match the offerings of a full-service grocery.
“I noticed this year everyone is selling fresh fruits and vegetables,” said Jeff Lenard, spokesman for the National Association of Convenience and Fuel Retailing. “We have come a long way with food and we still have a long way to go.”
For Turley, the Circle K at Fillmore Street and First Avenue in Phoenix lives up to its name: It’s convenient.
He could go to the Phoenix Public Market, a community non-profit dedicated to increasing access to healthy food. It’s just a block farther than Circle K, but he said its organic goods and locally farmed foods are often out of his budget.
“They do have everything you need, but do I want to spend?” Turley asked.
But going to the grocery is like planning a safari. Getting off at 7 a.m. from an all-night shift and facing the desert sun, he has to plan everything from what he will eat to how much he can fit in his reusable shopping bags.
So he often defaults to Circle K. It is quick and easy — and at least now they have a few more healthy options.
“They sell minimal fruit and you can buy bananas really cheap . . . it’s mostly processed,” said Turley. “There is not a healthy choices section or anything.”
FACTBOX: What makes a “food desert”?
A food desert is a low-income area with low access to a grocery.
To qualify as a “low-income community,” a census tract must have either: – A poverty rate of 20 percent or higher or a median family income at or below 80 percent of the area’s median family income