Accessing healthy food in rural South Dakota - KSFY News - Sioux Falls, SD News, Weather, Sports

Accessing healthy food in rural South Dakota

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The term "food desert" became popular when researchers began noticing a correlation between access to healthy food and overall health.

In major U.S. cities, some 20-million Americans are forced to shop at corner stores, because supermarkets have moved out of inner cities, and into suburbs.

But it's not just city dwellers experiencing problems associated with food access - thousands of people are living in rural food deserts right here in South Dakota.

For many South Dakotans, there is no such thing as a quick trip to the supermarket.

"I have to drive about 25 miles one way," said Lynda Douville of Parmlee.   

"I live in the village - the Sicangu Village – so it's at least 20-30 miles away," said Tracy Kills Plenty.

Over the past several years, the access issue has been a topic of study for the Agriculture Department at South Dakota State University. 

"Usually food access is about 'are people getting the food they need to really live a healthy life?'" said Suzanne Stluka SDSU Extension Food & Families Program Director. 

SDSU is studying food deserts- where people have to drive more than 10 miles to buy nutritious food. These are areas where necessity often forces people to supplement their diet at the local gas station - leading their bodies down a slippery slope.

"My opinion is that we've got some of our greatest need in some of our reservation areas and counties that lie within those, just because if you look at things like poverty, income, overweight - obesity, chronic disease like heart disease, and then that whole rurality and food access," said Stluka.   

The town of Mission has three grocery stores, but for those living outside the Rosebud Indian Reservation's largest town, getting fresh food can be a problem. 

"Through the winter storms it gets kind of bad, but there is a gas station out there that does have some stuff there," said Kills Plenty. 

Rachel Lindvall is a community development field specialist with SDSU Extension in Mission. Her office is helping to improve access to healthy foods by providing nutritional information, and teaching people to grow and preserve their own food. 

"During the late summer, we'll help people with canning classes and food preservation. Last year, we had three or four sessions where we did tomatoes and vegetables and jams and jellies," said Lindvall, "One of the projects that we tried to get going last summer was a farmer's market here in town, and actually we had an interesting problem.  We had more demand for the produce –we had plenty of customers, but we didn't have enough providers, enough growers.  So this year, when we went back and looked at it, we thought ‘well, let's get more people involved' and another of our initiatives as Rosebud extension is entrepreneurship.  And so I think food entrepreneurship, becoming a grower of local foods provides a way to provide people a little economic boost as well."

But keeping these programs funded isn't always easy.

"It seems like we still have to advocate a lot with our legislators and sometimes other people in positions of power to really prove to them that there is really this need to keep those programs funded," said Stluka. 

KSFY reached out South Dakota's senators for comment. 

A spokesman for Democratic Senator Tim Johnson issued the following statement:

"Senator Johnson continues to be a strong advocate for funding for nutrition education programs both on the reservations and in rural communities, like the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program. These nutrition classes fill a real need."  

Republican Senator John Thune has this to say:

"Our Native American reservations face numerous obstacles when it comes to securing healthy, nutritious food options. Many tribal communities are without a grocery store and their choices for healthy, low-cost food are limited. While there are a number of programs that help to provide our tribal members with access to nutritious food options, I also believe that economic development in Indian Country is an effective, long-term solution to providing local access to the food and produce that is important to the health and development of families."

One such economic development project has come from within the tribe.  Nearly four years ago, the Rosebud Sioux Tribe opened the Turtle Creek Crossing Supermarket.  Wizipan Little Elk is executive director of the Rosebud Economic Development Corporation - the driving force behind the tribe's business interests, including the grocery store. 

"Turtle Creek has brought a lot to our community, especially with regard to access. I'll put our vegetable and produce section against anyone in town - against anyone in the area - in terms of price, variety, and quality," said Little Elk, "It's a meeting place for people and people know that when they spend a dollar here at our store, it's being recycled back into the tribe and recycled back into our local economy, as opposed to making someone else rich – who quite frankly lives off the Reservation."

Tribal members KSFY spoke with have noticed a difference. 

"When we started this store, the prices were a little lower than the rest of the stores. So the prices start going down at the other stores, too, to keep the competition. That's good for us.  Price wars are good for everybody," said Patricia Douville.

Plus, there is a sense of pride in ownership. 

"It means a great deal for the store to be owned by the people of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe. Throughout our history and recent history, a lot of the businesses - the local businesses in the area - have been owned and operated by non-Indians," said Little Elk. 

Although the Rosebud Sioux consulted with the Cheyenne River tribe, who run their own store as well, there were growing pains. 

"To come into the market and open a large retail space like a grocery store, and to compete against well-established retailers is tough.  And we're honest about some of the mistake that were made, but a lot of those mistakes are being righted. Being corrected," said Little Elk. 

Turnover within the management team has been high, and using an out-of-state wholesaler caused unnecessary expenses.  Under a new general manager, the store is now supplied out of Rapid City. 

And while a lot has already been accomplished, tribal members acknowledge there's a long way to go.  

"We need to start teaching our kids what we ate traditionally to get our bodies back into the shape we were before, which is no disease, no diabetes, and no depression," said Patricia Douville.  

"It's a beautiful place and in the end product it's going to flourish. We have more land around here where things can come, but this is in its beginning stages," said Lynda Douville. 

Reliable transportation is a problem as well, for many living in rural communities.  There is a transport service run by the Rosebud Sioux Tribe Transportation Department.  It is based out of Rosebud, and run with the aid of a federal grant. 

However, the service's central location causes some problems.  The Rosebud Indian Reservation is about 2,000 square miles.  Wait times can be long, and for some, paying $0.51/mile can get expensive.  The tribe must charge for the service, though, because the grant stipulates that the tribe must recoup 15%. 

People are using the service, though.  According to Leroy Sleeping Bear with the Transportation Department, more than 46,000 rides were given in 2012 alone. 





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