WHEELING, W.Va. (WTRF)

A food desert is an area with limited access to affordable healthy food options.

The USDA looks at various issues such as poverty, cost of living and the ability of people to grow their own food.

It looks at whether people own a vehicle or have access to public transportation to get to a grocery store.

In Wheeling, this is a familiar concept because many parts of the city were designated as food deserts.

But that’s changing.

If you can stop and think about the access to healthy local foods, chances are, you don’t have the problem.

“Many people are struggling to get their cars fixed so they can get to one of their three part-time jobs so that they can feed their kids,” noted Glynis Board, executive director of Grow Ohio Valley.

Many people have to go to the little store within walking distance, where the available food is canned, packaged and processed.

“If the only kind gesture you can give your kid is a Snickers bar, because you can afford it and it makes your kids really happy, it’s convenient, it’s easy and it’s what you’re going to do,” Board said.

No judging, just reality.

“And you know what?” added Claudia Raymer, executive director of Ohio County Family Resource Network. “If I’ve worked a double and my kids are cranky, one of them is not feeling well, might I open a can of ravioli and give that to them for dinner? Yeah. And that’s OK.”

Maybe a large store is just four miles away.

But do you have a car?

Are you on the bus line?

“Someone who lives in Dallas Pike may be very close to Walmart,” said Rayner. “But do they have transportation to get there? Often their transportation options are limited.”

Buying fresh local foods may feel like a luxury.

But it’s vital to health.

Diabetes and hypertension come from eating nutritionally devoid foods.

Adding fresh fruits, vegetables and grains to a person’s diet can make an instant difference.

“We can bounce health outcomes pretty substantially overnight,” said Board.

 The Public Market, a consignment farmers market, has fresh food that didn’t travel across the country to get there.

They take SNAP (the program formerly known as food stamps) and SNAP Stretch, which makes it affordable.

So how do you get people interested?

How do you change long-time habits and preferences?

“You want to start young,” said Raymer. “And we have some great programs. We have WVU Extension agents who are doing nutrition programs in schools, in child care facilities and introducing families to fruits and vegetables they may not otherwise have had the opportunity to try.”

At a time when hunger is at worldwide crisis levels, food is a need as basic as it gets.

“Every human has a right to food,” Raymer noted. “It’s not a privilege. So increasing access, increasing opportunities is imperative to having a thriving community.”

The concept is apparently catching on.

The Public Market has done $408,000 in SNAP sales since it opened in October 2020.