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Barriers to Healthy Food Access in Rural Areas

It is well accepted that low income and limited food access go hand in hand. There are a variety of federally funded financial assistance programs designed to address food access and food insecurity. These programs, though important and generally familiar to the public, cannot completely address all the issues surrounding food access. In addition, some eligible individuals opt out of participating in these programs for a variety of reasons. Some people have a difficult time navigating the system. Others do not have the resources to travel to an office to apply, which is particularly daunting if they are not confident they qualify. Some others (particularly elderly individuals) report not applying because they don't want to take benefits away from others who may need them more. And others report that the social stigma accompanying food assistance is the major reason they do not choose to enroll, if they know they are eligible.

Federal funding agencies, such as USDA and Community Economic Development support innovative programs that put a creative spin on food access. Soliciting feedback from community members impacted by these barriers could provide invaluable insight on how the barriers could be approached with novelty, which could lead to innovative programming to increase usage of food assistance programs. The bottom line is that if there is not community buy-in and engagement, the program will fail.

It is impossible to address healthy food access without also addressing:

Barriers to healthy food access may run deeper, including poverty and racism.

Healthy food access has been categorized as a wicked food issue, which is to say it is an intricate web of complicated issues that are of serious consequence and are not easily resolvable. Jeff Conklin, a scholar who studies wicked problems, suggested wicked problems are never fully understood until a solution is developed. There are examples of programs that are working to address more than one of these issues, with varying levels of success. Please see Module 3 for examples.

Because of the complexity, it can be difficult to know where to begin. There are many existing organizations from different sectors that have resources to get you started. It is important to be strategic in how to approach the issue and include a wide variety of perspectives and approaches. Collecting community input by diverse methods will improve the chances of reaching a broad representation of the community and will provide a comprehensive picture of assets and concerns. Ideally, members of the targeted audience and other stakeholders will be spearheading the initiative. If this isn't the case, they should be heavily involved in planning and implementation. This will help measure ongoing interest and engagement and can help recognize potential barriers before they are encountered.

Resources to Learn More

Access to Healthy Food: Challenges and Opportunities
Policy brief exploring the various legal and policy initiatives aimed at increasing access to healthy foods. Covers topics such as local land use and zoning, permits, licensing, tax incentives, financing, and more. Also discusses the link between access to healthy food, overall community health, and obesity prevention.
Organization(s): Public Health Law Center
Date: 6/2012

An End to Stigma: Challenging the Stigmatization of Public Assistance Among Older Adults and People with Disabilities
Comprehensive report discussing the topic of benefits stigma– the negative connotation associated with utilizing public benefit programs. While the report applies to all forms of public assistance, the primary focus is on benefit program usage among older adults and people with disabilities. References to food access programs are included throughout.
Organization(s): National Council on Aging, Center for Benefits Access
Date: 6/2016

Healthy Food in Your Community: A Toolkit for Policy Change
Provides guidance and resources to help you understand food policy, get involved in the process, and build relationships within your community. Accompanying web video presents a conversation with food policy experts regarding the decisions and influences that affect access to healthy food.
Organization(s): Union of Concerned Scientists