Onslow County resident Nicole Zurcher lives in a food desert, and it’s fearing for her child’s life.
Zurcher lives in US 17, between Sneads Ferry and Jacksonville, and has one child who has allergic reactions to several foods. She has to travel between 30 minutes and an hour to buy organic food for her family to keep her child safe.
“There are five stores where we can shop,” Zurcher said. “Yes, most stores carry one or two organic items, but none of them carry a large quantity and are consistent. It can be very frustrating for us and sometimes scary, especially lately. When I go to the shops now I’m never sure I’m going to be able to buy milk and other food When I ask the shops they say they don’t even know what they’re going to buy or how much or even when it will happen.
The CDC defines food deserts as areas that have limited access to healthy, affordable foods, and these deserts have become a problem in many parts of Onslow.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Economic Research Service, areas with homes that have both low vehicular and walking access to a grocery store include areas around Bell Fork Road, Piney Green /Rocky Run and White Oak.
Sneads Ferry is another major problem.
The unincorporated area of over 2,500 people has only one grocery store, a Food Lion, which not everyone has easy access to.
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“We moved here from California and food has been a big deal since we moved here,” Zurcher said. “Everyone tells us the organic movement hasn’t arrived here like in California yet, so I’m going down to Wilmington and driving through Jacksonville just to buy organic food.”
Where to go?
It’s not just about organic foods, however, and the issues listed by the USDA don’t necessarily include them all.
Angel Rhoades, who lives off Catherine Lake Road in Jacksonville, said whichever direction she takes, it’s a six to eight mile trip.
Rhoades said she usually plans her shopping trips in advance, combining sales and coupons, but if she needs something last minute, she’s out of luck.
“I used to be able to get most last minute things at Family Dollar at 258, near 111, but since they closed it’s been harder to get things,” Rhoades said. “For example, I made chocolate chip cookies about two weeks ago, but ran out of brown sugar. I sent my husband to Dollar General and they were out, so he had to go to Richlands for me to collect.”
She said she often saw an older woman walk down 258 several times a week just to get things from Dollar General, rain or shine.
“I have no idea where she lives, but she goes a long way to get what she needs,” Rhoades said. “I think a grocery store in this neighborhood would be great for a lot of people. Everyone complains that there are too many stores in Jacksonville, and I agree, so let’s move some- ones in the middle of the county.”
Onslow County Health Department community relations officer Victoria Reyes said food deserts are often located in low-income areas.
“In a lot of research, especially under the North Carolina 2030 plan, some of the research is related to income, as well as the likelihood of living in some of these food deserts,” Reyes said. “So low-income neighborhoods tend to be in some of these food deserts, and a lot of the time they’re part of our larger minority population.”
Marie Bowman of NC Cooperative Extension, who is the manager of the Onslow Farmers Market, said food deserts not only impact physical health, but also mental health.
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Reyes agreed that one of the health department’s goals for their community health improvement plans is the social determination of health, as well as other factors of general health and well-being, and l importance of being a healthy community.
“So if you don’t have access to healthy food, a good education, or transportation, it affects you in other ways,” Reyes said.
how to help
Despite all of this, there are programs and resources for the people of Onslow, whether they can’t afford to get groceries or can’t afford to get groceries in general.
Reyes said the health department has partnered with Sandy Run on a program called Healthy for Life by Aramark and the American Heart Association. The program emphasizes healthy eating and eating on a budget.
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“Again, you may be talking about individuals who may not have that access, they may not have grown up eating a certain way,” Reyes said. “So it’s also like, mmm I don’t know if I want to try this vegetable or not, so it allows us to introduce different vegetables, different foods that some people may have never tried, as well as that budgeting and helping to make that grocery list and, or even doing like healthy swaps.
“If you’re so used to cooking a certain way, how can you try something different, and so, I think it’s also that education that goes along with not just having access to healthy food , but also with the possibility of buying these healthy foods , and what are actually healthy foods too. ”
Bowman said a big part of what they try to do is help people understand how to prepare food in a healthy way. She said a lot of the recipes in this community include frying, so trying to modify some recipes, like roasting instead of frying, can be a big help.
She said the air fryer boom has had a big impact on oil reduction.
Other programs include one from New Bern that helps with food banks and distributions, and they get their dispersal out of Raleigh. Bowman said she helped one on Monday, even though she didn’t have the amount to supplement as many people for as long as they usually could.
She said it was sad for the families who came out, but the systems are overwhelmed.
“We were told that families could come to New Bern and shop every day,” Bowman said. “But these are families who have limited incomes, many of them dependent on their neighbors for transportation, so driving to New Bern was not the solution. So we are reaching out to other organizations to help supply pantries and looking at other avenues to try to meet those needs.”
She said that because of the struggle, high school clubs and scouts are holding food drives.
“One of the local Sneads Ferry troops is actually trying to coordinate a food drive so the food stays in their charter and in their community, so they’re helping their neighbors,” Bowman said. “The need just grew at the start of the pandemic, and it continues to grow exponentially.”
Bowman said SNAP has been working on adding bonus dollars to their EBT redemptions to help them get more of what they need, and other programs have also included fees that allow residents to redeem. ‘get an Uber or a bus pass, so they can get themselves to a grocery store or a market.
“Trying to find ways to get food to people,” Bowman said.
Journalist Morgan Starling can be reached at [email protected]