The Poverty of Food Deserts in Central Appalachia

I am not and will never be a ‘food blogger’. It’s hard for me to take the time to look up a recipe, much less pick one out, document my attempt in a series of pictures that showcase it in a myriad of half formed stages and then somehow dream up witty remarks to write about it.

Major props to those who are, but I’d rather just eat my experiments in peace, thank you very much.

But don’t think that means I’m not interested in food. I have a passion for foodstuffs that forms the foundation of many of my deeply held values. I pursue environmental sustainability and self-sufficiency because I care so much about where my food comes from and because I want to get it from as authentic a source as I can, especially if that means raising it myself. (See: Raising Meat Rabbits).

And so this post is my first in a series of my own personal form of food blogging. I’m not going to write about recipes but rather regional food trends in Appalachia that I have researched. You won’t come away from this post with dinner plans, but I hope something will stand out to you and demand a little more thought than you had given it before.

I will be writing a three (for now) part series about food in Appalachia. This post is all about rural food deserts and their impacts on society. The second post will be about Appalachia’s historic food culture and the ways it is being revitalized through restaurants and farmer’s markets. Finally, my third post will highlight some of the ways local organizations are striving to reclaim the subsistence farming and gardening culture of this region by providing farming opportunities on previously degraded land.

Intrigued? Please subscribe at the bottom of this post to get an email notification when I publish parts 2 and 3.

The Appalachian Food Desert

Moving from the Midwest heartland of Michigan to Central Appalachia has been a big transition for me. Though Appalachia has historically had a well-developed food culture (I’ll talk about that in my second post) the region’s food options have been suffering in recent decades. Due to decreased economic opportunities West Virginia has been losing population faster than any other state, especially in the southern coalfield region where I live. This has massive effects on the region’s food system.

According to the USDA, a food desert is defined as ‘a part of the country where people don’t have access to fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthful whole foods’ ( This can be caused by lack of stores within the populations’ income bracket, lack of healthy options at those stores or a general lack of transportation for people to get to them. Typically food deserts are a symptom of broader economic changes that are taking place. In Southern West Virginia, that change comes from the currently declining coal mining industry. Yet the problem is statewide. People in more than 40 counties in West Virginia endure some sort of limited food access, and the number is growing as that state population continues to decrease and more grocery stores close their doors.

Maps from show some stark truths about the food systems of Appalachia. I’d recommend checking out the article, even the parts that don’t relate to Appalachia.

In the search for stable jobs in a post-coal economy, agriculture is often suggested as an economic solution for West Virginia. One critique is that money is difficult to make farming the steep slopes of topsoil-poor mountains. This map from Vox reveals that West Virginia is one of the few regions in the entire country where average farms make less than $10,000 per year. Besides the desert southwest, that is the lowest profit margin for farming in the nation.

econ of farming


This map is looking at food deserts across America and it highlights a large dark streak of food scarcity throughout much of Central Appalachia. My experience in this region has shown this map to be accurate. In order to get to a grocery store with a somewhat decent produce selection (Wal-Mart), Ian and I need to drive over 45 minutes away from our house. The seasonal farmers market one town over is the same distance away and the only restaurant within half an hour of us is Dairy Queen. Beyond that, food options are limited to the convenience foods offered at a few small gas stations. Though our situation is more extreme because we live on the top of a mountain, all our neighbors that live in the hollers around us will have a very similarly-lengthed drive.


Much has been written about the connections between urban poverty and food deserts, but in some ways rural food deserts can be even more debilitating for sufferers. This map from WV Foodlink reveals that the southwestern region of West Virginia (my home) has low vehicle access for residents and/or that grocery stores are more than twenty miles from resident’s homes. In many cases, both are applicable. The situation is less severe now because gas prices are so low, but when prices rise past $4 dollars again many residents will have a lot of difficultly paying for those forty miles of driving.

food desert

Put out by the Appalachian Regional Commission, this map reveals how much of Appalachia beyond West Virginia is affected by low vehicle access and long distances between grocery stores.

food desert 2

Health Concerns for West Virginia

Why should we be concerned about food deserts in Appalachia? Because places with food deserts are often linked with poorer health. According to a 2014 report, West Virginia has the second highest obesity rate in the nation and is sixth in the nation for obese teenagers. The state is ranked first in the nation for both diabetes and hypertension, two diseases that have a direct correlation with obesity. Sadly the prevalence of all these diseases continue to go up. Lack of access to healthy food for many West Virginia citizens is a huge reason why these numbers are so high. Funding for health care is higher in West Virginia than other states, an unwelcome burden for a state already struggling with a decreasing tax base.

The southern coalfield counties of West Virginia have especially bad overall health outcome scores. If you remember from above, that region also has the highest prevalence of food deserts in the state.

health outcomes

Lack of accessible, healthy food is creating big problems for the overall health of citizens in West Virginia. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Subscribe to this blog or check back soon for Part 2 of this series, a post about Central Appalachia’s local food culture and the ways it is being revitalized through farmers markets, restaurants, and a rediscovered appreciation for traditional tastes.


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3 thoughts on “The Poverty of Food Deserts in Central Appalachia

  1. So interesting, and sad Lydia. For some reason, I always associated food desserts with the sourth side of Chicago and never thought about rural ones! A question: Do farms like yours (where the farm is not the main source of income for the owners) count into the statistic about annual income of farms in the region? Could that also be affecting the income rate? I’m interested to learn how many farmers now have resorted to other incomes because farming is no longer sufficient, and the number who pursue other occupations because the prefer them?

  2. I remember once in West Virginia going out to eat, and the only salad available was iceberg lettuce topped by strips of (rather tough) steak, smothered in ranch dressing. Healthy food is not so easy to find there.

  3. Thanks so much for sharing this! You definitely hear so much about the urban food deserts. I grew up in a very rural part of Michigan and we had 1 grocery store. Anyone living in the small villages nearby had to drive into town to get groceries. I’m blessed now to live just a couple miles in any direction from grocery stores, walking distance to a weekly farmers market (twice weekly in the summer) and a neighborhood market.

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