By Sarah Rafique
Harker Heights Herald
Convenience stores with overpriced food items replace grocery stores and fast-food chains tempt locals who lack easy access to fresh produce.
Scattered throughout Central Texas are areas where few healthy food options are available to those who need them most.
These areas of the United States where access to fresh and affordable foods is limited are considered food deserts, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
"Instead of supermarkets and grocery stores, these communities may have no food access or are served only by fast-food restaurants and convenience stores that offer few healthy, affordable food options," the USDA website states.
Three census tracts in Bell County and one in Coryell County are designated food deserts by the USDA. Although residents may not be aware they live in one, many have voiced the need for more fresh-food options.
Philemon Brown, pastor at Harker Heights Community Church, said access to nutrition is a major concern and that it often leads to poor diet, obesity and other diet-related diseases, including diabetes and heart disease.
"If choices are not available, they will start demanding that kind of resource be available in their respective communities," he said. "A lot of people have no idea that the food they're consuming has no nutritional value. It's about awareness first and then taking those steps to address the infrastructure."
People are inundated by convenience, but once they are aware of better options, Brown said they will make and seek better food choices.
"It takes time to really go out and look for vegetables as opposed to just going through the drive-thru," he said, but with more options available, people will increase their intake of healthy foods to take better care of their bodies.
The food desert tracts in Bell County have a combined population of 12,740 and 63.2 percent of those residents have low access to a supermarket or large grocery store. The number of low-income people with low access is 1,370, according to the latest 2010 census data used by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The census tract in Coryell County designated a food desert has a population of 5,064 with 41.6 percent of that population designated as low access and 5 percent as low-income with low access.
To help alleviate the food deserts, Killeen received a $24,600 grant from the USDA earlier this year.
Jill Hall, senior planner and heritage preservation officer for the city, said most of the funds support an aggressive advertising campaign to promote the farmers market. That includes the Green Avenue Farmers Market that opened in March and is one of the solutions the city has to provide access to healthy and affordable food options to residents. "We just want to get the word out so that residents know," she said.
Hall said the extension of the Andy K. Wells Hike and Bike Trail will help residents within the food deserts gain access to the market by increasing walkability.
Although the farmers market is not within the tracts of the food desert, Hall said bus stops the city added last year near the market will help increase residents' access to fresh food.
"Even if it's not within walking distance, there is a new HOP stop there, so it is something that is low cost for transportation," she said. "That would be an easy way that folks could get to the market."
But some communities have needs that do not get met. Brown's church planted a small community garden with squash and green beans in April to provide fresh produce to residents during the church's potluck dinners. "We need more community gardens," he said. "It's our small step that we're doing."
Contact Sarah Rafique at firstname.lastname@example.org or (254) 501-7549.
Defining food deserts
A food desert is a low-income census tract, based on 2010 figures, where a substantial number of residents have little access to a supermarket or large grocery store.
To qualify as a low-income community, a census tract must have 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.
To qualify as a low-access community, at least 500 people and/or at least 33 percent of the census tract's population must reside more than one mile from a supermarket or large grocery store (for rural census tracts, the distance is more than 10 miles).
For more information, or to use the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Desert Locator, go to http://apps.ams.usda.gov/fooddeserts/foodDeserts.aspx.
Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture
By the numbers: Food statistics
1.3 billion tons
Roughly a third of the food produced in the world for human consumption every year — approximately 1.3 billion tons — gets lost or wasted. That's more than 1 ton of food per hungry person in the world. Food loss occurs at the production level, whereas food waste occurs at the consumption level.
U.S. per capita food waste has progressively increased by 50 percent since 1974, reaching more than 1,400 calories per person per day.
2,000 to 5,000 liters
The daily drinking water requirement per person is 2 to 4 liters, but it takes 2,000 to 5,000 liters of water to produce one person's daily food.
Places where food riots have broken out in the past five years.
The number of Americans living in food-insecure households. At times during the year, these people were uncertain of having enough food.
— The Washington Post
Local food deserts
Population living in a food desert: 7,912
Residents with low access: 5,148
Low-income residents with low access: 771
Housing units without a vehicle with low access: 168
Population living in a food desert: 5,064
Residents with low access: 2,107
Low-income residents with low access: 272
Housing units without a vehicle with low access: 51
Population living in a food desert: 4,828
Residents with low access: 2,907
Low-income residents with low access: 599
Housing units without a vehicle with low access: 137
Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture