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Southeastern Ohio Food Desert Is About To Get A Grocery Store


You'd think that in a place with a lot of farmland there'd be easy access to fresh food. That is not the case in part of southeastern Ohio. Vinton County has gone four years without a grocery store. One determined resident is changing that. Susan Tebben of member station WOUB explains.

SUSAN TEBBEN, BYLINE: Vinton County is 414 square miles of farmland and forest, made up of villages rather than cities and is an hour's drive from the West Virginia border. According to the Census Bureau, 19 percent of the county's residents live in poverty. Almost that same percentage are senior citizens. Rhoda Toon Price heads the county senior citizens group where she spends a lot of time planning social events.

RHODA TOON PRICE: We're having our chicken diddle (ph) dinner tomorrow. Hey, they're homemade diddles. They're making them today.

TEBBEN: Toon Price is small in stature, but here, she is huge in reputation. Many credit her for the new grocery store now being built near the only stoplight in the county. Four years ago, the county's last grocery store closed. County residents now drive an hour round trip just to buy basic groceries. Frustrated by that, Toon Price lobbied legislators, bringing along a banana to use as a visual aid.

PRICE: And then I said, how would you like to travel 10 miles one way - and I whipped this banana out - to buy one of these? Or would you rather stay home and take potassium tablets? Well, I got a snicker out of the group.

TEBBEN: She talked about all the miles logged by volunteers driving to neighboring counties to get senior citizens fresh food.

PRICE: We're talking close to 150,000 miles just in 2016 back and forth to either to take them shopping. And it depends what part of the county is to how far we have to go.

TEBBEN: As she left legislators, they gave her a promise of support. Rick Campbell owns two grocery stores in nearby counties, and when he heard about Vinton County's dilemma, he and his wife hopped on his motorcycle and rode down State Route 50, talking to potential customers along the way.

RICK CAMPBELL: We could feel the need that everybody's been talking about in the area that there's no fresh meats, produce and, you know, regular grocery items.

TEBBEN: But to open a grocery store in Vinton County, he would need incentives and financial help. That's where the Healthy Food Finance Initiative came in. Funded largely by the state, it provided $1.5 million in grants and loans to help build the grocery store. There are similar initiatives across the country, some promoted by a group called The Food Trust. Its associate director, Caroline Harries, says rural areas with food deserts like Vinton County present unique challenges.

CAROLINE HARRIES: Well, I think in rural areas it's counterintuitive that, you know, often they're surrounded by farmland, but that production goes elsewhere. And so it's not intuitive that there might be not a source of fresh produce in a rural community.

TEBBEN: Campbell's market is set to be completed later this fall. Rhoda Toon Price says it's important to keep Vinton County from becoming a food desert again.

PRICE: We're going to encourage people to shop locally. I personally will because as long as we got a full-fledged supermarket, keep it in the county.

TEBBEN: As her example shows, sometimes change can come from the simplest of things, even a banana. For NPR News, I'm Susan Tebben.

(SOUNDBITE OF DORENA'S "AT SEA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.