Click to go to an interactive map of food deserts and farmers' markets in North Carolina.

By Rose Hoban
Map created by Steve Tell & Rose Hoban

In late January, legislators met for the first time to discuss issues surrounding North Carolinian’s access to fresh, healthy food.

The House Committee on Food Desert Zones, formed to study the issue during the legislative interim, heard several presentations about the intersection of farmers’ markets and the existence of so-called food deserts.

Food deserts are those areas where people have to travel long distances to reach stores where they can buy healthy food at reasonable prices.

According to Ruth Petersen of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, a number of programs – such as the Women, Infants and Children program, which helps pregnant women and mothers of young children get access to healthy food – coordinate to increase access to nutritious food.

But she described a pilot program where families were given a once-a-year $24 voucher for farmers’ markets, and many of the vouchers went unused.

“The biggest barrier was transportation,” Petersen said. She explained that many issues around food access are intertwined; perhaps a mother could buy milk at a gas station or convenience store, but it might be more expensive than at a supermarket several miles away, using up more of her WIC benefits.

Petersen said that her division has used money from community-transformation grants provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to increase the number of mobile farmers’ markets and farm stands, encourage participation in community-supported agriculture and enhance farmers’ market access, especially in low-income areas of the state.

“We have been pleased to report that since the inception of this grant, we have been able to start 30 new farmers markets’ and enhance 72 farmers’ markets,” Petersen said. Enhancements included increasing transportation to the markets, providing land-use protections for the market sites and enabling markets to accept electronic transfer benefits, food stamp benefits contained on plastic cards that look and act like debit cards instead of vouchers.

According to Audrey Edmisten of the DHHS Division of Aging and Adult Services, a pilot program to give farmers’ market vouchers to food stamp recipients over the age of 55 got more seniors eating more fresh produce.

“Last year for the Seniors Farmers Markets, we received about $83,000. We’re in 33 counties. We allocated $21 per participant in that program. It was about 3,800 people, and coupon redemption was 89 percent. That’s very high,” Edmiston said.

She said the biggest barrier to people using the vouchers was the inability to get to the farmers’ markets because of a lack of transportation. In some counties, such as Columbus County, the farmers’ market went to the senior center. In other communities, Edmiston said senior centers and social service agencies coordinated transportation, such as car pools, to get seniors to the markets.

And when program officials surveyed the voucher recipients, Edmiston said 81 percent reported they’d eaten more fresh produce because of the program, 77 percent said they’d shop more at farmers’ markets if they had more coupons and most of the recipients spent money beyond the vouchers at the markets.

“Get that money right back into local communities,” Edmiston said.

The map above notes that the intersection of farmers’ markets and food deserts might occur because the farmers’ markets are only open for two or three months of the year. Despite the fact that North Carolina ranks sixth in the nation for the number of year-round farmers’ markets, many parts of the state have much poorer access to fresh produce during winter months, according to N.C. Department of Commerce statistics.

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps) 

FYI: Households CAN use SNAP benefits to buy:

  • Foods for the household to eat, such as:
  • Breads and cereals;
  • Fruits and vegetables;
  • Meats, fish and poultry; and
  • Dairy products;
  • Seeds and plants which produce food for the household to eat.

In some areas, restaurants can be authorized to accept SNAP benefits from qualified homeless, elderly or disabled people in exchange for low-cost meals.

Households CANNOT use SNAP benefits to buy:

  • Beer, wine, liquor, cigarettes or tobacco;
  • Any nonfood items, such as:
    • Pet foods;
    • Soaps, paper products;
    • Household supplies.
    • Vitamins and medicines
  • Food that will be eaten in the store
  • Hot foods.

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