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You only have to drive through the Gainsboro and Lincoln Terrace neighborhoods of Northwest Roanoke, or through Southeast along the Jamison Avenue corridor, to know they are places devoid of supermarkets.
A couple of months ago, the U.S. Department of Agriculture released data that confirmed what residents of those neighborhoods have long known. They live in what researchers have come to call “food deserts” – areas with concentrations of low income families, in many cases with no personal transportation, and no nearby supermarket. Food deserts aren’t exclusively urban, but frequently are.
And those who live in them, researchers confirm, suffer from high rates of diet-related disease – obesity and type 2 diabetes, for example — because of the ways they must shop.
The USDA identified nearly 200 census tracts in Virginia as food deserts. Just 29 of those are found to have 100 percent of residents with low access to a supermarket. And four of those 29 are in Roanoke, including the Gainsboro/Lincoln Terrace and Southeast.
Moreover, according to a Roanoke Times analysis of the data, the city of Roanoke is second only to Petersburg among Virginia’s urban areas
According to it’s documentation, the USDA first identified census tracts that it labeled low-income. Then, researchers determined what portion of the total population of each of those tracts lived more than a mile from a full-service supermarket in urban areas, and more than 10 miles in rural areas.
Some have questioned the USDA’s methodology, including Mari Gallagher, a Chicago-based researcher who first popularized the term “food desert” in 2006. In our story in The Roanoke Times, Gallagher points out that there is no perfect distance to a grocery store. You could live a quarter mile from a store, but if you have to cross a freeway on foot to get there, for many it may as well be 10 miles away.
Her sense is that the USDA data may underestimate the problem.
At a minimum, it does seem to confirm what is plain to the eye. Grocery chains long ago began pulling out of the urban core in favor of places that accommodate their new model: megastores surrounded by seas of asphalt along main arterial roads with easy access.
What’s left behind is a hodge-podge of neighborhood food sources that charge higher prices, from fast food to old-fashioned corner groceries to convenience stores to chain pharmacies like CVS and Walgreens.
That sets up a dynamic for those who live in food deserts, which I described in an interview on pubic radio WVTF/RadioIQ: If you have to pay extra for bus fare and cab fare to grocery shop, your incentive is to shop less frequently, maybe even once a month. If you shop once a month, your incentive is to by stuff that is filling and will keep, often high-preservative stuff in cans or dehydrated noodles. You have little incentive to buy stuff like fresh produce and dairy products that won’t last in a month’s quantity. The result is a diet which, paradoxically, produces obesity in people who have less to eat.
That’s the same stuff that’s hard to find in those neighborhood stores.
So, what’s the solution? Getting mad at chain grocery stores? Asking them to open stores in places that don’t make sense for them business-wise, when they already operate on thin profit margins?
Some cities are trying to convince those neighborhood stores to sell healthier choices, like fresh produce. What about community gardens and community farmers’ markets?
Are there transportation solutions? In Roanoke, there is bus service to supermarkets from its most challenged neighborhoods. But you can’t bring two weeks worth of groceries on a bus. Is there another option?
There are independent grocers who open stores in food deserts, and chains like Save-a-lot that specialize in smaller stores in impoverished areas. Some say they are proving that small stores on and old-fashioned scale can still be profitable in the inner city.
Does government have a role? What is it? Incentives and zoning to promote development of stores in needy areas? What else?
What do you think the solution is?
In the latest installment of our coverage of census data, all but four localities in the Roanoke and New River Valley regions have had surges in their elderly population over the past decade, reflecting the region’s already above-average concentration of elderly, and the impact of the first wave of the aging baby boomers.
For those of a data-inclined bent, veteran Roanoke Times journalists Beth Macy and Matt Chittum also recommend links to reports and numbers reflecting a national perspective, a closer look in Virginia, and an advocacy group’s report.
Lynchburg’s population growth over the first decade of the century, at 15.8 percent, stands out among Virginia’s older cities. Most of that growth — some 8,000 people out of a decade’s gain of 10,200 — was in three census tracts in southern Lynchburg that encompass Liberty University and new planned communities such as Wyndhurst and Cornerstone. For a report on how Liberty’s rise has affected Lynchburg, click here.
Reporter Janelle Rucker today explains what’s driving Franklin County’s 18.8 percent population growth over the past decade. Much of it is related to growth near Smith Mountain Lake, but for others it is a matter of moving a little further away from work in return for much lower taxes. In Franklin County, property owners pay a real estate tax rate of 48 cents per $100 of assessed value. By way of comparison, Roanoke’s tax rate is $1.19, Salem’s is $1.18 and Roanoke County’s is $1.09. That means the owner of a home assessed at $200,000 would pay a $960 real estate tax bill in Franklin County, versus a $2,380 bill in Roanoke.
Beth Macy explores in detail in today’s newspaper why no one in the Hispanic community or the providers who serve them seemed surprised by the reported surge in population during the past decade, with 5,345 Hispanics counted in Roanoke and 1,951 in Roanoke County.
If anything, Hispanic residents are likely to have been undercounted by census-takers, they said — even though the recession has hit Hispanic laborers hard, and enforcement of illegal immigration has increased with the recent opening of an Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in Salem.
By his own calculations, the Rev. Job Marquez said he believes 12 to 14 new immigrants are turning up in the Roanoke region every day, largely from Mexico and nearly all of them illegally.
Many are living in the shadows, hoping to wait out both the recession and the current anti-immigrant sentiment.
“For the most part, people are still being treated well here,” said Marquez, who heads a Christian pastors association that represents 11 area Hispanic congregations. “Their kids are getting educated … and their relatives are already here.”
Northern Virginia saw big increases in the Hispanic population. We noted earlier that Hispanics fueled Roanoke’s population growth. But those numbers are wee small compared to what’s happening in Northern Virginia.
* By percentage, Manassas and Manassas Park are now the most Hispanic localities in Virginia. A decade ago, Hispanics constituted 15 percent of the population in each city. Now, Manassas is 31 percent Hispanic; neighboring Mansassas Park is 32 percent.
* Prince William County is now 20 percent Hispanic, up from 9.7 percent.The two Manassas cities are relatively small, population-wise, but Prince William is big to start with, so the numbers here are mucho grande. Prince William saw its Hispanic population increase by 54,122 during the decade.
* Other Northern Virginia localities also have double-digit Hispanic populations:
– Fairfax County is now 15.58 percent Hispanic, up from 11 percent.
– Arlington is now 15 percent Hispanic, down from 18 percent, one of the few places in the state that saw its Hispanic population decline. I think historically Arlington has served as an entry point for lots of ethnic groups, who then move out into the surrounding suburbs.
– Alexandria is 16 percent Hispanic, up from 15 percent, so it shares some of Arlington’s characteristics.
– Fairfax City is 16 percent Hispanic, up from 14 percent.
– Loudoun County is now 12 percent Hispanic, up from 6 percent — and keep in mind Loudoun’s overall population growth nearly doubled, so for the Hispanic share to double, as well, that’s a lot of people.
There are four localities outside of Northern Virginia that have double-digit Hispanic populations (percentage-wise):
– Harrisonburg is 15.6 percent Hispanic, up from 8.8 percent.
– Winchester is 15.4 percent Hispanic, up from 6.4 percent.
– Galax is 14 percent Hispanic, up from 11 percent
– Fredericksburg is 11 percent Hispanic, up from just under 5 percent.
Plot those on a map and the real outlier there is, of course, Galax, in Southwest Virginia.