Letter: Grainger County's Unrecognized Food Desert

I read the June 30 "Food (Desert) City" article and found one comment rather interesting. [Citybeat by Cari Wade Gervin, June 30, 2011] The author said that "there is no food desert in ... Grainger County ...." Has this writer ever been to Grainger County? We have two IGAs, one Cox & Wright, and several small convenience/grocery stores in a county that is 310 square miles and has about 21,000 people—but no Food City, Kroger, Ingles, Walmart, or any other larger stores in the entire county. (And we may not for years to come since our local County Commission just rejected a chance to put sewer into a prime area.)

From Washburn to the closest IGA grocery store, one has to drive about 22 miles, over a mountain, on a very windy road. Grainger County also has a large population of low-income folks, another part of the "food desert" definition. Thank goodness we have some local families that have dedicated their lives to providing some groceries for area residents by running small grocery/convenience stores. Without stores like Petticoat Junction and Washburn Grocery, there would be little close access to even the most basic groceries for a large section of Grainger County.

But even with local small grocery and convenience stores, I have never found tofu or whole wheat bread or beyond the very basics fruits and vegetables carried in Grainger County stores. Our small local stores try to provide a good selection, but it is cost-prohibitive for them to do so. So Knoxville and Hamblen County get most of our business as well as our sales tax revenue.

While the writer of this piece may feel that Knoxvillians are disadvantaged, a ride to Grainger County would demonstrate that some folks just accept living with less. Some have to drive 50 miles for their regular groceries and few rarely offer any complaint about it, yet we all seem to survive. Not everyone has access to "fresh and healthy foods" within a mile of their homes or a bus to catch to shop for them and yet alternatives are found such as growing one's own food, carpooling with a neighbor, or offering to pick up goods for someone when one "goes to town."

Perhaps some of the communities that should be recognized as having food deserts for the purposes of future grant monies could be recognized by local media for what they are, not for what they appear to be to new Knoxvillian writers. Maybe then it wouldn't be so hard for counties like ours to find funding for projects that provide the most basic of needs to our citizens. For me, having a bus system and a large grocery store within a mile sounds like a great gift. I am sure some of the elders and families in Grainger County would appreciate such a wonderful convenience.

If Knoxville has 9 percent of its population living in food deserts, I'm sure Grainger County's population, by the USDA's criteria, would have about three or four times that much. Perhaps a little more research would help shed some light on the situation of the other folks who live in the Knoxville area, at least before statements are made that may be perceived as fully accurate.

Pam Fass

Washburn, Tenn.

Editor's Note: Which counties have food deserts is not something our own writer decided herself—she was simply reporting on the designations made by the USDA. It's worth noting again that in rural counties, the designation requires not only that a majority of the population to be low-income, but also that it lives at least 10 miles away from a supermarket.