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Pattie Fialcowitz straps two of her three small children into the family’s Subaru. She makes sure the 2-year-old and 4-year-old are ready for the trek. They’ll be in the car for about an hour, headed 45 miles south to Missoula for the biweekly grocery trip, so she wants to ensure they're comfortable — for everyone’s sake. The white Outback's tires crunch on a thin layer of fresh snow covering the gravel road. Mountains in the not-too-distant horizon are distinctly whitened. A few acres of fields surround Fialcowitz’s house, where she grows crops year-round and raises cattle. The land on Fialky Farm is fertile, but it sits, statistically, in the middle of a desert -- a food desert. For the Fialcowitz family, the only fresh produce available in the town — or for miles in any direction — comes straight from the four acres of land they own. Because in Dixon, Montana, a town of about 230 people that sits in the southwest corner of the Flathead Indian Reservation in Western Montana, there is nowhere to buy healthy food. No restaurant. No grocery store. Not even a gas station convenience store. “There’s a lot of people that don’t eat well here,” Fialcowitz says. “There’s a lot of poor people, too.”

Multimedia Feature: How Families Manage in the Rural Food Deserts of the West

Pattie Fialcowitz straps two of her three small children into the family’s Subaru. She makes sure the 2-year-old and 4-year-old are ready for the trek. They’ll be in the car for about an hour, headed 45 miles south to Missoula for the biweekly grocery trip, so she wants to ensure they’re comfortable — for everyone’s sake.

The white Outback’s tires crunch on a thin layer of fresh snow covering the gravel road. Mountains in the not-too-distant horizon are distinctly whitened. A few acres of fields surround Fialcowitz’s house, where she grows crops year-round and raises cattle.

The land on Fialky Farm is fertile, but it sits, statistically, in the middle of a desert — a food desert. For the Fialcowitz family, the only fresh produce available in the town — or for miles in any direction — comes straight from the four acres of land they own. Because in Dixon, Montana, a town of about 230 people that sits in the southwest corner of the Flathead Indian Reservation in Western Montana, there is nowhere to buy healthy food. No restaurant. No grocery store. Not even a gas station convenience store.

“There’s a lot of people that don’t eat well here,” Fialcowitz says. “There’s a lot of poor people, too.”

Video: Fialky Farm helps food desert residents find healthy eating

The Rural Food Desert

For many families living in sparse regions, the Fialcowitzes’ plight is a familiar one. In the United States, especially the rural West, the number of areas without ready access to healthy and affordable grocery stores has been gradually increasing over the past few decades.

A study released by the Research Initiation Program at Mississippi State University shows one of the highest concentrations of food-desert counties in the United States extends east from the Rocky Mountains toward the Great Plains. Food deserts are prevalent in nearly all non-metropolitan counties in Montana, eastern Wyoming and Colorado, as well as parts of northeastern New Mexico, according to the study. Populations there, from the Canadian to the Mexican border, have a shortage of healthy food.

Defining these food deserts can be tricky and they can exist in both urban and rural areas with similar issues of accessibility. Some experts label deserts differently depending on relative size of available supermarkets or distance separating customers from the food source. Either way, several critical factors have caused the development of the deserts, said Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism at the University of Kentucky.

Part of this food accessibility problem has been caused by the emergence of massive, big-box stores that move into nearby locations, Cross said. As more and more people make the choice to visit large chain stores, places where they can get not only groceries but other household supplies, it puts strain on local grocers.

“That cuts the market for business in small towns, especially for supermarkets,” said Cross, who served on the editorial board of a rural sociology project on food deserts. “They operate on very small margins to begin with, maybe a 2 or 3 percent (profit). They can’t raise prices to compete because even more people will leave.”

A second leading cause of small-town markets closing — and effectively adding to the prevalence of food deserts — involves dwindling populations in rural areas. Populations already low are threatened by the disappearance of independently owned farms and the general migration of people toward suburbs. With fewer potential customers, there’s less money to help keep local grocery stores open, Cross said.

Miles from Nowhere

Especially in rural areas, food deserts exist beyond the reaches of the massive food distribution system in this country. Chuck Verbeck, an administrator for Sysco Corporation, the largest food distributor in North America, said it all comes down to the costs of delivering a relatively small amount of food to stores with undersized customer pools, many of which are far off of main highways.

“When it comes to rural areas and our decisions there… it’s like any business,” said Verbeck, the company’s vice president of program sales for the Billings, Mont., distribution facility. “It’s all driven by profitability and access.”

Verbeck pointed to the lack of operating grocery stores that his trucks service in tiny towns in Montana and Wyoming. He said the majority of deliveries are to bars and casinos that serve food. And while the company — which does $38 billion in food services a year nationally — has no exact rule on where to deliver, if a Sysco salesperson can’t make a profit in a place, you definitely won’t see a truck in that town.

Even places where distributors could make money sometimes get left behind, especially due to inclement weather. Conditions can cause deliveries to become increasingly difficult.

“We’ve got a $200,000 piece of equipment and our drivers’ safety to take into consideration,” Verbeck said. “When the snow flies, sometimes we don’t. And that’s Mother Nature dictating where we go.”

That scenario tends to occur each year in Cooke City, Mont., where trucks coming from Billings, located just 125 miles northeast, have to circle around Yellowstone National Park on more reliable roads to even get near the town, he said. The new route adds hours and more than 100 miles of travel to the itinerary. If they can’t make it all the way into Cooke City, a seasonal tourist town with a permanent population of little more than 100, Sysco tries to coordinate a drop point where pickup trucks can pack the product back up icy, winding roads.

When fresh fruits, vegetables and lean meats are left out of a person’s diet, serious problems develop. Without the nutrients that come from a balanced approach to eating, malnutrition will be right around the corner, Cross said. Even worse, cheap and seemingly easy substitutes for products found in the produce section of grocery stores can lead to all sorts of health problems if consumed regularly over a long period of time.

Processed food on the shelves of gas-station convenience stores is the most readily available food in many rural areas, but is often packed with saturated fats, high levels of sodium and cholesterol.

“That’s a lot of empty calories that encourage obesity and diabetes,” Cross said.

Those effects are usually unavoidable for folks who, unlike the Fialcowitz family, have no viable transportation and therefore no other options. Because of this, the portion of the populous with low or no income is hit even harder by the lack of healthy food.

But some people are fighting back. Kentz Willis, a nutrition and food safety expert from the University of Wyoming Cooperative Extension in Sheridan, said that, while residents of scantily populated regions may have a hard time bringing supermarkets back to town, many are starting to cultivate their own food, often planting small gardens during the growing season.

“There’s a real movement in the region of people starting community gardens. There’s nothing healthier than grabbing something straight out of the ground —maybe washing it first — and then digging in,” Willis said.

Unfortunately, he added, with the climate of most of the Rocky Mountain area, the opportunity to farm can be limited. The growing season in Wyoming isn’t nearly as long as a season in a place like California, he said, so people need to take advantage of it while they can.

In Missoula, Pattie Fialcowitz parks her car next to a local organic food store. She’ll sell some of her crops there — shallots in the winter, a wider variety of cultivated products during the summer months — before swinging by Costco to pick up bulk supplies like toilet paper and cheese. The snow has started up again, falling thick, whipped around by harsh winds.

Winters, she says, poses challenges for people in rural areas. During the summer, however, those who grow crops often sell their surplus to others in their communities. When farmer’s markets are in season, neighbors’ efforts are one of the best solutions to solving the healthy food scarcity issue, adding fresh produce to the diets that need it most.

“The farmer’s markets are popping up all over the place,” she says. “But people have to be looking for it. And many people aren’t.” And with the regular and long disappearance of warm weather, even that option also disappears, leaving long drives and hard, personal choices for people in Dixon and places like it.

ABOUT THIS SERIES: This week, New West is proud to run stories reported and written by University of Montana School of Journalism students who, with the help of American Public Media’s Public Insight Network, looked into the local food movement and agricultural shifts shaping the West. Journalism student Heidi Groover served as lead editor for this series. The project originated as part of the Green Thread initiative at UM.

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11 comments

  1. No Schwans truck? And isn’t frozen food a viable alternative? The best fish is processed and frozen at sea in IQF tubes, within an hour of catching. Much better than fresh fish, which on the grocer’s shelf is probably 5 or more days old. Time in the hold on ice at sea, then processed on shore, delivered to a distribution warehouse, and then to the grocer. I have to believe that frozen raw vegetables are better than shelf worn “fresh” veggies. Or dehydrated in summer for winter use. Or canned at home for winter use. Like, really, what in the hell did people DO before Walmart, Raley’s, Albertson’s, Safeway?? My hours and days in some wild places indicate that sheep herders, tie cutters, and surveyors or other users long ago had canned goods. Milk, tomatoes, peaches, all had to be favorites. They left behind their cans in an arid setting, and 70 year old cans are still there.

  2. If you live in the boonies, your freezer is your best friend if you want to eat well.

  3. When I worked as the Lake Winterkeeper in Yellowstone Park in the 70s, I was snowed in for a good four months and found that a root cellar and a freezer did the trick. Carrots, turnips, spuds, apples, etc. did fine in the root cellar. Add canned fruit and frozen veggies and you’re fine. Not as good as fresh, but if you live in the boonies, you need to plan ahead. If you can’t survive, move to a dump like Missoula and eat fresh broccoli to your heart’s content–while breathing miasmic air and listening to a concert performed by your neighbor’s barking dogs.

  4. Fresh Mexican or Honduran broccoli. Mexican cilantro and basil. Chilean blueberries. Israeli peppers. Global warming has kicked the crap out of our US grown fresh food. I just got off the phone with my brother in El Centro, and he was asking me how to protect his citrus from a predicted 29 degrees tomorrow morning. I said put a sheet of plastic over his garden, and turn the sprinklers on his short citrus. And then it was a half hour discussion about not enough hoses, and an endless non-understanding of just simply having the water on and for water to freeze, it has to give off heat, and ice is insulation, so if you have 32 degree ice, it produced heat in the change of state from a liquid to a solid. So the ice is warmer than the air, and the bad deal about freezing is that it will desiccate the plant to some extent. Dry it out. Hurt the tender growth. The ice will protect the fruit at 29 degrees. A wind barrier…and it was hopeless. Physicians are long on smarts and short on common sense. I gave up. No matter, your lettuce is going to get frozen tonight. From the Imperial Valley over to the Yuma country. Algore has some ‘spainin’ to do, Luci…

  5. As a filmmaker, I can assure you that there are few things as frustrating as putting together a piece only to have it displayed in the incorrect aspect ratio so that it is distorted for the viewer as this one is. Almost all modern cameras shoot content in a 16×9 aspect ratio. You should be able to set your site settings to insert letterboxing if you need to have a “one size fits all” frame for your videos.
    Thanks.

  6. can,freeze, stock up your shelves or move closer to the store`s. People, you have to stop your whinning, if you do not like it get out. GET REAL

  7. Lest we forget, the US is a country that subsidizes farming for biofuels, and that is impacting global grain and oil markets, driving up prices. High food prices and less availability is a driver in the Middle East unrest targeted at their leaders. And the leaders most under fire are the ones who import from the US. We face rising oil prices due to the unrest, and higher food prices because of increased costs and fuel subsidies for biofuels, which is about reducing oil imports. Making oil very expensive and reducing use is an Obama policy direction. So that long drive to buy groceries is going to cost more for fuel, and the price of the groceries are rising too. Me thinks a voter revolution will be evident in 2012. Obama oil policy has unintended consequences. One might be the Egyptian unrest. That is about food cost and availability. The North Korean model could be in play: more guns and less butter. The people are not happy, though.

  8. Wow! Newwest’s full court press on the idea that you’re being poisoned if you don’t obsess about eating locally grown organic food and further that you’re ruining the environment if you shop at a big box store like Costco or Walmart, is impressive if not exactly true.

  9. Food deserts are not soley a rural phenomena, but also urban. Grocery store chains regularly desert poor neighborhoods for upper-middle class, where the foodies cry for organic veggies and fruit, artisan breads and hormone-free meat.
    The urban poor are left with convenience stores that only sell heavily-processed foods that contribute greatly to obesity-based diseases.
    True, canned and frozen foods help, as do home and community gardens.
    A more systemic problem is industrial agriculture. For all you conservatives who don’t like Mexican and Central American immigrants seeking work up here, the root problem is found in the Mid-West cornfields that are so heavily subsidized that they helped destroy rural agriculture south of the border, prompting an exodus to the north.

  10. This article paints a picture of woe, yet people don’t always feel as sorry for themselves as the many agents (media, health and “social service” organizations) would like them to. Here in New Mexico, there are several remote locations at least 45 miles from the nearest grocery store. Many ranching families have their food packed in dry ice. Some have their own gardens, yet our soil is not nearly as rich as that of Fialky Farm. I myself live 2 hours from the nearest Wal-Mart, and yet I strongly reject the notion that I am “suffering.” How dare others label us this way!

    The truth is that people here do not consider themselves bad off. In fact, they like their remoteness and independence. They may say that people who live in cities are in “peace of mind and soul” deserts, or experience a dearth of fresh air and sunrises. The ways the people in this article, and the people here at my home, have found for “dealing” with their situations may be termed “creative,” but, in fact, are what their families have been doing for generations. If you asked families in our area what their real problem is, they’d probably say a shortage of water for raising livestock and growing gardens–and yet, they don’t get asked, do they. The real problem, in my estimate, is the notion that if others don’t have the conveniences we’ve come to believe are “rights” or “necessities,” we decide they are suffering. We’ve heard of how ethnocentrism can seriously impair our ability to understand and relate with other cultures. This is one instance in which it happens right here at home.

    Oh, and by the way, as a nutritionist, I agree with the comment about frozen fruits’ and vegetables’ often being better for us than fresh fruits and vegetables. Somehow, the “fresh” idea must have made its way into political lingo and now is accepted as true–and what’s worse, used as a measuring stick. Too bad we so often propagate what we hear rather than investigating a situation.

  11. Okay, my anger was reflected in my last post. I know the students on this project have worked hard and were trying to show compassion on us rural folk. I would suggest, however, that the approach to take is first to listen to the rural people–their goals, experiences, and suggestions for improvement of their area–rather than coming to them with preconceived ideas of what is best for them. Most of us have said, or heard someone say, “I grew up poor, but I never knew it at the time.” In our innocence (a good thing), we know our blessings. It is only when we start comparing ourselves with others that problems and “disparities” occur. I disagree strongly with going out of our way to tell a person or a group of people that they are disadvantaged just because they don’t live the same as we do. Who knows? Their way of life could be better!