Challenges in the Delta

toddFall 2012

By Sally Graham

The Arkansas flood plain of the Mississippi River is the richest soil in the state, supporting extensive rice and soybean production. A common image of the Arkansas Delta is that this fertile soil provides families with space for personal and community gardens.

A new National Institutes of Health-supported study, led by epidemiologist Martha Phillips, Ph.D., in the UAMS Fay W. Boozman College of Public Health is discovering just how skewed this popular image really is.

The study, in collaboration with community networks, is focusing on 19 counties in the Arkansas Delta. The study’s geographic region – St. Francis County in the north to Union County in the south – has some of the worst health issues in the state.

“Obesity is really a function of calories in and calories out plus a little metabolism in the middle,” said Phillips.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture touts the benefits of eating nine servings of fruits and vegetables a day. Fruits, for example, make up half of its stylized plate at choosemyplate.gov, mapping what a healthy meal should look like. This seems straightforward: A trip to the grocery store could easily fit the bill.

What’s hard to comprehend is the challenge most people in rural communities actually face when trying to achieve this seemingly simple nutritional goal. The study’s researchers say most people in the Delta don’t have gardens because people living near commercial crops are concerned about overspray of pesticides.

Calories are also cheap. For people hovering at or below the poverty line, it’s hard to deny the appeal of a convenient 99-cent cheeseburger and a 99-cent order of fries off a dollar menu at a fast food restaurant.

So, Phillips and her team set out to assess the food systems in the 19 counties. Where do people purchase their food? How far do they have to go to shop? And, what kinds of fresh fruits and vegetables are actually available?

The team first documented all the places people are able to purchase food, including supermarkets, drug stores, convenience stores and grocery stores, using commercial and publicly available databases. Next, they drove the streets, actually verifying the establishments listed in those databases exist. The team found some places were no longer in business and others were selling food but were not in the databases.

Results indicated that unless residents in the rural research area want to, or have the ability to, drive 30 or 40 miles to shop for groceries, they end up purchasing their food from convenience stores where canned meat, white bread and an occasional can of green beans, orange or banana are mainstays.

A third phase of the study is assessing what kinds of fruits and vegetables are available and if they are canned, fresh or frozen.

In the final segment, community residents will have an opportunity to share their perspectives about the challenges they face to eat healthy. What kinds of changes do community leaders want?

“We make it hard for people to eat in a healthy way,” said Phillips. “But we believe that before we can change the system, we have to know more about the realities of the system.”