Clemson University’s dean of the College of Behavioral, Social and Health Sciences is exploring ways to improve access to healthy food in South Carolina.
“I’m a rural sociologist who looks at poverty,” Dr. Leslie Hossfeld said. “It’s not an easy thing to access healthy food.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture uses the term “food insecurity” to measure hunger. According to the USDA, there are about 250,000 South Carolina residents living in 21 food “deserts” located in 14 different counties.
Dr. Hossfeld said a new term has evolved, known as “food swamps,” describing where food is accessible “but it’s not particularly healthy.”
“We have rising obesity rates in the United States and a lot of it has to do with the kind of food you can get access to,” she said.
In her search for a solution to food insecurity, Hossfeld and two colleagues compiled research from fellow scholars into a book, Food and Poverty: Food Insecurity and Food Sovereignty among America’s Poor.
“We really wanted to understand this strange relationship between food and poverty in the United States,” she said. “We think of the U.S. as the land of plenty and it certainly is, but it’s also a place where it’s difficult to find healthy food.”
Hossfeld said in South Carolina, about 14 percent of the population is “food insecure.” South Carolina ranks 10th in the nation for its obesity rate.
“Even in some of our big agricultural states we found that sometimes getting access to locally-grown or healthy food is not an easy task and so it is an actual burden,” she said. “We really wanted to reach out across many disciplines who study this and look at some of the ways in which communities are trying to address this for themselves.”
Clemson’s health experts are working with agricultural experts to investigate the issue. Two researchers just earned a grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to investigate obesity and find ways to address it in South Carolina.
“We’ve got good examples across the United States where communities have taken ownership of growing and distributing their own food and some really good community examples,” Hossfield said. “We hope to learn from those examples and see what we can implement in rural communities either through growing their own food, producing their own food, processing their own food. These community initiatives do have some opportunity for growth and, I think, success.”
Hossfeld said obesity is related to poverty in the United States because food that is more readily available in high poverty areas also lacks nutrition.
“That has a lot to do with the kind of food that is cheap and plentiful,” she said. “So if you don’t have a grocery store with fresh food near you, you may have convenience stores or some fast food places. That food is typically food that doesn’t have a lot of nutritional value. It’s pretty cheap but it’s not healthy.”
And for convenience sake, packaged foods that are easy to warm up in the microwave or prepare are processed and lack nutritional value.
Hossfeld said community leaders, local health officials, non-profit agencies and residents themselves could put apply some of the examples other communities have used and found successful.