Raleigh, N.C. — A legislative panel offered few solutions Monday to getting fresh produce and other healthy food into communities that lack grocery stores.
Lawmakers created the House Committee on Food Desert Zones after Kroger closed two stores in southeast Raleigh last year.
"A whole community had been built around that grocery store," Rep. Yvonne Holley, D-Wake, said of a defunct Kroger on Martin Luther King Boulevard. "A lot of housing had been built. A senior citizens place had been built where people could walk to the grocery store. So, it was a tremendous loss."
Food deserts are defined as urban neighborhoods and rural towns without ready access to fresh, healthy and affordable food.
Without a grocery store nearby, many people are left with convenience stores that often don't carry healthy food options. Poor diets are a major contributor to obesity and chronic diseases such as diabetes and hypertension, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
"If you don't have an automobile, where do you go shop, and how is it convenient? It is a problem," said Rep. Edgar Starnes, R-Caldwell.
Poverty and hunger are major problems in North Carolina, with nearly one out of every six people in the state receiving some type of food assistance. But help doesn't do much good for people with nowhere to buy the food.
"It's not just food deserts; it's food insecurities," Holley said. "It's not just an (agriculture) problem; it's a health and human services problem that can be solved by business and commerce. So, you know, how do we get all the agencies to talk to each other?"
Starnes, who served as chairman of the House committee, said there's not much the state can really do to address the problem.
"We can't just go out there and build grocery stores in a community or demand that a person go out there and invest their money to build a grocery store," he said. "These are decisions that the private sector has to make."
The committee did recommend expanding federal programs that feed students in schools, especially breakfast. They also heard from nonprofits that bring mobile grocery stores into under-served areas.