Abstract: Exploring the Impact of Virginia’s Major Food Deserts on Health Behavior

Studies show that individuals of low socioeconomic status may face barriers that impede them from being able to live a healthy lifestyle. For example, low-income and inner city neighborhoods are often in the center of “food deserts:” places that lack healthy food options and tend to be filled with fast food restaurants. (Walker, Keane, and Burke 2010, 876-84).The following is a list of the eight major food desert counties in Virginia: Fredericksburg, Hampton, Harrisonburg, Lynchburg, Martinsville, Petersburg, Richmond County, and Wise County. They have been identified based on the percentage of the population in that county that is low income, lack transportation, and are SNAP eligible. Last summer, I analyzed health data in those counties in order to determine if there was a relationship between health statistics and food deserts.  Surprisingly,  obesity rates were not significantly different in the eight major food deserts as compared to the state of Virginia as a whole, indicating that more data is needed to support the idea that living in a food desert can negatively impact one’s health. I then looked at Health Factor rankings of all the counties in Virginia, which take into account health behaviors, clinical care, social and economic factors, and the physical environment in each county. Four of these major food deserts fall into the bottom 15% of rankings, and even the highest ranked food desert, Harrisonburg, ranks at 49th, which is only in the top 37% of all counties. When the circumstances of each county is factored in, all eight food deserts fall into the bottom 40% of rankings, with half of the food deserts falling into the bottom 8% of rankings. As shown by this data, there is evidence that there is a relationship between food deserts and poor health.

This summer, I aim to delve deeper into how exactly living in a food desert impacts health behaviors, and how local organizations are working to combat food insecurity. To do so, I will identify organizations such as Lynchburg Grows (a non-profit urban-food farm) throughout the eight major food deserts and conduct interviews. The interviews will help in learning more about the programs that these organizations are implementing to establish a healthier community. For example, Lynchburg Grows has an initiative called the “Veggie Van,” where they go around to different neighborhoods weekly to sell fresh produce at low costs. Local community members will also be interviewed in those areas to determine their opinions on the effectiveness of the programs. Interview questions will be tailored around  how living in a food desert has impacted their ability to lead a healthy lifestyle, and how effective they think initiatives such as the Veggie Van are. This information will shed light on what local community members would like to see changed, and how organizations can improve their existing programs.

This information will be relayed to the organizations so that they can evaluate the effectiveness of their existing initiatives and determine what else they can do to help their communities. In order to make this research mutually beneficial, the information gathered from the variety of interviews will not only be communicated to the organizations, but will be used to create a short, informative video about food deserts and their impact on the local community. The organizations that I partner with for this project can use it to promote their cause.