Many Douglas County residents are living in what some call “food deserts” — places where people must drive, often long distances, to large grocery stores where fresh food can be obtained at lower prices.
For low-income downtown Roseburg residents and rural residents who have poor access to transportation, living in a food desert can mean the difference between eating healthy vegetables or canned chili, according to Vanessa Becker, founder and president of V Consulting in Roseburg.
Rural members of local focus groups participating in research for a Community Health Assessment released this week complained of a shortage of healthy food where they lived, Becker said.
V Consulting prepared the assessment for the Umpqua Health Alliance, Douglas County’s first community care organization. The Umpqua Health Alliance contracts with the state to serve Oregon Health Plan patients in Douglas County.
“It came up loud and clear in several groups, particularly in Drain and Riddle, that access to fresh produce was next to none unless people grew it themselves,” Becker said.
Poverty, lack of transportation and a shortage of grocery stores all contribute to a shortage of healthy food for many Douglas County residents.
According to the national County Health Rankings, which compare counties with others in their states, 11 percent of Douglas County residents have limited access to healthy foods, compared with 5 percent statewide.
The Communities Reporter, a compilation of U.S. Census data collected by the Oregon State University Rural Studies Program, sets the figure higher — at 19 percent.
Thirty-four percent of Douglas County children have limited access to healthy food. The statewide picture is not much better at 29 percent of Oregon’s children, according to the Communities Reporter.
Another group hard hit by food insecurity is seniors, according to “Local Voices, Local Food,” a 2013 assessment of Douglas County’s food supply by the AmeriCorps Resource Assistance for Rural Environments program and the Oregon Food Bank.
“Seniors are often living on fixed incomes, lack mobility and can be resistant to asking for help,” according to the report.
One Reedsport resident who participated in a Community Health Assessment focus group said she was surprised at the price of organic celery in her hometown, Becker said.
“She said, ‘I could have bought five boxes of Hamburger Helper for the cost of that celery,’ ” Becker said.
A Drain resident said she had to travel to Eugene to obtain soy milk for her father, who suffers from celiac disease, a digestive condition often accompanied by lactose intolerance.
Becker said she heard similar comments from residents of blighted downtown Detroit while she was a research assistant for the Detroit Community Academic Urban Research Center in the 1990s.
“There’s so many similarities, which is really unfortunate, between the middle of Detroit and some of our rural areas. You get similar issues with poverty and access and transportation and all of these things. It’s a very different environment, but some of the health statistics are similar,” Becker said.
“When you can’t afford to buy healthy food, you settle for what you can get, but you can’t live on canned chili,” she said.
NeighborWorks Umpqua Microenterprise Program Manager Anna Jen said most Roseburg residents who live in a food desert are in the downtown core.
“They are low-income and they may not have transportation to be able to drive to a supermarket. Their alternative is just to go to Rite Aid or to the corner market, and they don’t sell fresh produce there,” Jen said.
Jen said the Umpqua Local Goods Store at 736 S.E. Cass Ave. is attempting to fill in that gap. The store, operated by NeighborWorks and students from Roseburg’s Phoenix Charter School, buys produce, meat and dairy products from local farmers and tries to sell them at prices similar to those found at larger stores, she said.
“Local Voices, Local Food” notes the irony that many of the rural areas whose natural abundance once attracted settlers to Douglas County are now home to many who suffer from hunger.
“The Land of the Umpqua has always been synonymous with bounty, first to the Native Americans who gathered food, hunted and fished here, then to frontiersmen and women homesteading in the valleys, and now to the many farmers and gardeners who call Douglas County home,” according to the report. The image of bounty stands in stark contrast to the numbers of residents who have poor access to food.
United Community Action Network Food Bank Program Director Jeanine Coffey said the food bank has increased the quantity of fresh vegetables and fruits in emergency food boxes. The boxes are distributed to pantries reaching nearly every rural town in Douglas County.
For the past six months, Coffey said trucks delivering produce to the Oregon Food Bank headquarters in Portland have been stopping in Roseburg to distribute foodstuffs like eggplant, oranges, carrots and squash.
Still, it’s a temporary solution for families who want produce. Each low-income family is asked to come in no more than 12 times a year for a box of food intended to feed a family for about three days.
Coffey said the food bank and local pantries have been receiving more produce from gardeners this year and she encourages more gardeners to “plant a row for the food bank or your local pantry.”
• You can reach reporter Carisa Cegavske at 541-459-2873 or firstname.lastname@example.org.