“In order to be healthy, people need to access food,” explains Karen Ehrens, a registered dietician and the coordinator for the Creating a Hunger Free North Dakota Coalition. “We can make sure people have access to healthy food now so that we prevent chronic diseases like diabetes, heart disease and cancer, or we pay later.”
Research has shown that people who have to drive more than 10 miles for food are less likely to eat healthy foods and more likely to have heart disease or diabetes, says Lori Capouch, rural development director at the North Dakota Association of Rural Electric Cooperatives. And on top of health concerns, food is a necessity in many other ways,
“Food is what comforts us. It’s what we gather around. It’s one of those basic things we need to live and be healthy. There’s so many different ways to look at that,” Capouch says.
In six years, North Dakota has lost more than 20% of its rural grocery stores, and nearby states are facing similar issues. Capouch and Ehrens are part of the North Dakota Association of Rural Electric Cooperatives’ Rural Grocery Initiative, which has been working to find solutions to the problem.
The loss of rural grocery stores has coincided with rising rates of both food insecurity and obesity in the state, Ehren said. While not having enough food and becoming obese sound like opposite problems, Ehrens says they’re “two sides of the same coin.” As people have fewer sources of healthy food, they rely more on unhealthy foods, she says.
A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study this year showed that $57 million in medical expenses in North Dakota every year can be attributed to food insecurity, Ehrens says. And those costs affect everyone.
“Wherever people live, they need to be able to access healthy food,” Ehrens said.
Nutrition programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children are administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. WIC is funded through the Child Nutrition Reauthorization. SNAP is funded through the farm bill, and the conventional wisdom has been that those programs are part of the farm bill to get urban lawmakers onboard with the legislation.
However, Ehrens says that’s denying some important facts: More than half of people on the programs live in rural areas.
“WIC serves over 55% of children born in North Dakota every year,” she says.
The USDA has made three proposals to reduce access to SNAP in the past year, one of which recently was made into a final rule to go into effect in 2020. Two others remain under consideration.
The rule already approved would reduce states’ ability to receive work waivers for able-bodied adults without dependents between 18 and 49. Ehrens says that rule could hurt people in rural communities where there aren’t many jobs.
“There are a lot of job openings in North Dakota, but they’re not everywhere across the state,” she says.
She says the other rules under consideration would reduce access to free school lunches for children and would change how utility bills are considered in determining income, which would affect people in places like North Dakota that have higher heating costs.
Ehrens says if the three proposals all go into effect, it will kick about 10% of North Dakota SNAP participants off the program. In addition to making some families more food insecure, the move also would reduce the business at rural grocery stores and other rural businesses that sell food and accept SNAP, she says.
“That could impact businesses down the line as well,” she says.