Food deserts contributing to area hunger problems

Food deserts affect parts of 16 different Tri-State counties

Think about all of the food in your kitchen right now - in the refrigerator, the pantry, and the freezer.

Now, imagine only having half of that, or less, in your kitchen. Could you and your family live on that amount?

Unfortunately, it's a very real scenario in the Tri-States. Not only do some experience that shortage of food, some can't even get to the nearest grocery store to buy it.

It's called a food desert, and you don't have to look far to find one.

A food desert is where a large share of people in a lower-income area live a considerable distance from the nearest grocery store. In urban communities, it's defined as living one mile or more from the nearest grocery store. In rural food deserts, residents live 10 or more miles from the nearest store.

According to the USDA, 16 counties in the Tri-States contain areas that qualify as a food desert.

"I think it's surprising to people to know that people really don't have food on their shelves and that if we're not there to deliver their meals, they may not eat that day or have a nutritious meal that day," said Debbie Catlett, executive director of the Hannibal Nutrition Center.

Catlett has led the organization for more than 20 years. Last year alone, the Hannibal Nutrition Center provided about 220,000 meals to Northeast Missouri residents.

Her organization is part of the solution to food deserts, but many people, both young and old, still don't have access to healthy food on a regular basis.

"There are not enough resources. I guess I would say there are agencies that are trying but there are not enough resources or money," Catlett said.

Some organizations, including Catlett's, are suffering from cuts in funding. About one-third of the Hannibal Nutrition Center's operating budget comes from state and federal funding.

Places like Douglass Community Services in Hannibal are also working to meet the demand. Executive Director Dave Dexheimer said Douglass provides several food services, like preparing boxes of food for seniors that are picked up once a month. But for many, it takes more than one food resource to compensate for living in a food desert.

"We know that's not going to provide them food for a month, it just won't do it, so they've got to find other places as well," Dexheimer said.

Limited income and access to transportation contribute to food deserts. But Dexheimer said many people are affected by a third major factor.

"Pride, in many cases. We see that especially among senior adults who just have a difficult time accepting food, accepting any help," he said.

Both Dexheimer and Catlett suggested more public transit as a future solution to the problem, but agreed that more awareness in the community could help immediately.

"I think that's the biggest issue - letting the community know where the facilities are, how they operate," Dexheimer said.

"See for themselves how important they can be in helping solve this problem so that we can help to take care of our community," Catlett said.

Another solution to the problem is to stock pantries with more locally-grown food.

There is a group in the Tri-States leading the effort to make that happen.

KHQA's Kristen Aguirre will have more on that story on Monday, May 19.