- The Washington Times - Monday, July 5, 2004

PITTSBURG, N.H. (AP) — William Laste thinks nothing of driving more than 400 miles round-trip to buy groceries, or of supplementing his shopping with fiddlehead ferns and dandelion greens gathered in fields near his home.

In this mountainous outpost of 870 persons along the Canadian border, good food at fair prices is hard to find. There are no supermarkets, and the community’s two convenience stores offer little fresh produce and plenty of high prices.

Mr. Laste’s fixed income can’t accommodate $2.99 for his favorite cheesy crackers. He gets around it by combining shopping with monthly visits to friends in cities to the south, where the same crackers cost half the price.

“Up here, you’re so far out they’ve got you over a barrel,” the 69-year-old retired plumber said. “I couldn’t afford to shop up here.”

Such is life in “food deserts,” increasingly common rural — and sometimes urban — areas where supermarkets with healthy and affordable food are many miles away.

“Sometimes the food pantries have a better selection of food than the grocery store in town,” said Dawn Girardin, who works on hunger and other welfare issues at Western Maine Community Action in Wilton, Maine.

For people with the vehicles, time and patience to go the distance, it’s an inconvenience. For the poor and elderly, it can mean stocking the refrigerator with the pricey, fatty fare of gas station convenience stores.

The term “food desert” was coined more than a decade ago in Britain, where it was used to describe the phenomenon of supermarkets withdrawing from cities to build larger stores on the outskirts.

Historians say the grocery landscape in the United States wasn’t always that way. During the 1950s, more than half of all grocery stores were mom-and-pop operations. Today, just 17 percent are, said Walter Heller, research director for Progressive Grocer magazine.

While making food and other products cheaper than ever before for millions of people, suburban stores siphon shoppers away from smaller markets in surrounding communities and city centers, forcing many to close.

For 17 years, Jerry and Dot Nering have run a small shop in Weld, Maine, a remote town of 400 people. In its heyday, the shop was stocked with meats, cheeses and produce, and shoppers swapped gossip around a wood stove.

Today, many of the Weld General Store’s shelves are bare and customers only trickle in. The Nerings blame the two Wal-Mart Supercenters that have opened within 20 miles of their shop.

“Our cost is higher than Wal-Mart sells for, so you can’t compete,” Mr. Nering said.

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