Has Walmart overpriced their food

Fresh food is missing in the “bread basket of America”

The United States is the richest country in the world - yet 39 million Americans live in “food deserts” with little access to fresh fruit and vegetables. The situation is particularly bizarre in agricultural states like Iowa.

Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin: The states of the Midwest are among those regions of America that hardly any Europeans ever visit as a tourist - but which form the backbone of the food supply in the USA. One would think that the residents there do not need to worry about access to food. But a look at the supermarket shelves shows precarious conditions - even in non-Corona times.

If you are looking for fresh food in Dallas Center, a small town 45 minutes north of Iowa's capital Des Moines, you will do so for a long time and sometimes in vain. A lonely iceberg lettuce lies in the refrigerator compartment of the "Baker's Pantry"; the vegetable section consists of little more than a pile of onions and a few potatoes. The saleswoman in the village shop looks at the empty shelves and shrugs her shoulders. They didn't have much fresh in February, she says apologetically. But you should try the gas station, they sometimes have apples and bananas.

Affected 12 percent of Americans

The small town with its almost 2000 inhabitants is still well served because there is even a village shop with the "Baker’s Pantry". Dallas Center is one of the countless rural communities in the Midwest that experts call "food deserts." The Ministry of Agriculture defines these as low-income communities in which a large proportion of residents have little access to fresh, inexpensive food - in rural regions within a radius of 16 kilometers, in urban regions within a radius of 1.6 kilometers. According to the department, 39 million people, or around 12 percent of the American population, live in such areas.

"Food deserts" are not only found in the sparsely populated West, but all over America. But they seem particularly bizarre in the heart of the country, which supplies large parts of its corn, grain and soy production and therefore has nicknames such as “Bread Basket of America” or “Corn Belt”.

One of these areas is the state of Iowa. 3 million people live here in an area that is almost four times the size of Switzerland, many of them in one of the 900 small towns. These are usually too sparsely populated for supermarket chains to open branches here, while at the same time, hypermarkets like Walmart have ruined the business of many village shops. In contrast to rural regions in Europe, there is hardly any public transport between the municipalities that residents can use to get to the nearest supermarket.

Experts see a direct link between the disappearance of supermarkets and the rise in health problems. Those who mainly eat ready-made foods suffer more from overweight or even obesity and thus risk developing type 2 diabetes. Iowa is one of the nine states in which at least 35 percent of the population is obese; In 2012 there was not a single state in which the proportion of severely overweight people was so high.

Preserves, instant soups and pasta

Several residents say that the only supermarket in Dallas Center closed its doors decades ago. Many here work in Des Moines and do their shopping at the Walmart Supercenter on the way home. The lack of supermarkets is particularly a problem for those who cannot afford a car or who no longer want to drive - mostly the poor, the elderly or the disabled.

Like the two ladies trudging through the snow on a Tuesday afternoon to the Methodist Church in Dallas Center. Every week on the first floor volunteers offer a food board. Canned corn and beans, Asian instant soups and packs of pasta with cheese sauce fill the shelves. Everything is free; if you want to help yourself here, you just have to bring proof of your place of residence. "We're replacing the supermarket for many," says John, one of the volunteers that afternoon, and subtly points to the petite older women who scurry through the rows of shelves with bowed heads. The two of them come every week, says John, "but I don't ask anyone why they're here." Some visitors come from other communities so that the neighbors don't see that they need the blackboard.

The helpers try to provide fresh food to visitors, but that is difficult. Today a large supermarket donated a lot that will expire in the next few days, says John, pointing to heads of lettuce and meat in the fridge. "We gave every visitor a salad." But that is the exception, most of the food comes from private individuals who have chips and instant food left over after celebrations.

Vegetable pop-up shop

Several experts explain in an interview that it is difficult to get consumers used to a healthy diet and that this depends on many factors. "It's a mixture of availability, affordability and awareness," says Julia Koprak from the non-governmental organization Food Trust, which among other things offers cooking courses for healthy dishes in rural areas. But if there is no way to get fresh food at all in everyday life, all other starting points are useless.

Many Iowa communities have shown remarkable creativity in attempting to provide this access to rural areas. In Dallas Center and three neighboring towns, the “Pop Up Produce” shop comes by every week, a kind of mini-weekly market. That afternoon he is in De Soto, a thirty-minute drive away, another small town where a gas station is the only source of food.

This afternoon, in front of the local library, there is a sign with a heart made of fruits and vegetables printed on it - the sign that the stand is visiting today. Inside, in an adjoining room, Meredith is sitting in front of boxes of onions, sweet potatoes, pears, apples, bananas and oranges. “We change the products every week,” says the young woman who runs the pop-up shop. She and her volunteer buy the fruit and vegetables from the wholesaler and pass them on to the residents at the purchase price - two pears for 75 cents, three sweet potatoes for 50 cents. The idea is to encourage residents to eat more fruit and vegetables, explains Meredith. "To achieve that, it has to be accessible and cheap at the same time." The pop-up shop is sponsored by the county health department; the money is used to finance Meredith's part-time job, the petrol money and advertising in local newspapers.

In the two hours that the mini weekly market holds in De Soto every week, maybe 15 customers would come by, says Meredith. Many do not have a car or would not dare to take the expressways in snow and black ice. "People are counting on us to come."

The pop-up shop would certainly be even more popular if it could also accept grocery stamps, so-called “snap vouchers” - the currency of needy Americans. But mostly these brands can only be redeemed in large supermarket chains, a problem for many residents in rural areas. "Snap is the big goal for the next few months," says Meredith.

A refrigerator in the library

Another practical solution has been considered in Perry, one of the poorest cities in Dallas County. Once an important junction in rail traffic, Perry is now a shadow of itself. In the large clinker stone buildings on the main street, almost all the shops are empty. In contrast to the otherwise predominantly white inhabitants of Iowa, there are a noticeably large number of Latinos and Afro-Americans on the road. A look at the statistics shows that every fifth resident was actually born abroad.

Unlike other small towns, Perry has two large supermarkets, but at 15 percent it also has the highest poverty rate in the region. "Availability of fresh food and affordability are two different things," says Mary Murphy, who runs the local library. In fact, studies have shown that a nutritious diet can cost ten times as much as convenience foods. Many families in Perry struggled from one payday to the next, Murphy says.

She wants to help them with a new offer: a refrigerator for fresh groceries that every resident can help themselves to. Murphy stands in the entrance hall of the library and stretches her arms to the side as far as she can - that's how big the refrigerator she'll be putting up here over the next few weeks will be. This project is also financed by the public health department, the food should come from the local supermarkets that would otherwise throw it away - and from residents who are financially better off. It's an experiment, says Murphy. Many families here are “food insecure”, so they have problems getting the next meal on the table.

Junk shops as a supermarket substitute

However, solutions such as blackboards, mini weekly markets and public refrigerators should only be a drop in the bucket to completely solve the problem of “food deserts” in the Midwest. Increasingly, communities are now placing their hopes in companies whose regular customers are already low-income: the so-called dollar stores. In these shops, from cleaning products to mobile phone charging cables, pretty much everything is available at low prices. The Dollar Tree and Dollar General chains dominate the market; Since 2010, the number of its branches in America has risen by fifty percent to 30,000 stores. They are among the few physical stores expanding in times of growing online commerce. For comparison: Walmart, the largest retailer in the country, has around 4,800 stores.

In Iowa, too, dollar stores are part of the landscape like corn fields and wind turbines. A few days ago, the Dallas Center also had a branch of the Dollar General chain, the yellow and black balloons from the opening party are still blowing at the entrance. The store has several rows of shelves filled with convenience foods: chilli with beans for $ 15 per tin, family-sized chips packs, french fries and frozen pizza. The dollar stores also have the advantage of accepting grocery stamps. All over the Dallas Center store, next to the price tags, there are yellow notes saying "Snap Accepted".

Increasingly, communities are now requiring dollar stores to also sell fruits and vegetables. Some cities even go so far as to link the licenses for new dollar stores to the fact that these also offer fresh food, reports the "Wall Street Journal". For a few months now, $ 650 general stores have also been doing this - about 4 percent of all branches of the chain. But other communities in Kansas, Alabama, and Oklahoma think this is just the wrong way: They are trying to keep dollar stores out of their communities in the hope that one day a real supermarket will open again.