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Living in a food desert means less nutritious options for this local family

Hunter Morrison
WUWF Public Media
Lloyd Rush

A food desert is a geographic area where residents may have low income and low access to healthy foods, mainly due to a lack of grocery stores. Between Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa, and Walton counties, 24 geographic areas are identified as food deserts, affecting over 102,000 Northwest Floridians.

While Pensacola and Escambia County have the most individual food deserts, the largest food desert in the area covers rural portions of north Walton County. Lloyd Rush lives with his fiancée and two children between DeFuniak Springs and the Florida-Alabama state line, an area where grocery stores are sparse.

Hunter Morrison
WUWF Public Media

“It really affects us, especially with the timeline with the kids,” Rush said.

The closest grocery store is a Piggly Wiggly in DeFuniak Springs, about 12 miles away.

“At minimum, if you’re looking to go to the store to get a drink and come back, you’re talking 35 to 40 minutes just to do that,” Rush said. “If you’re shopping and leave the house, you can plan to be gone for two hours before you get back.”

According to data from the USDA, the construction of grocery stores to eliminate food deserts is not always feasible due to high costs or lack of infrastructure. That leaves many individuals unable to or struggling to afford the drive to the nearest grocery store.

This, combined with the high cost of living, leaves the Rush household with a grocery budget of just $100 per week. That’s less than 50% of the national average.

“It goes through money to where we’re barely surviving sometimes,” Rush said.

To mitigate food insecurity, Rush and his family attend food pantries, normally twice per month. He says that 50% to 60% of his family’s food comes from food pantries. The family is also on food stamps.

In many instances, those who live in food deserts may be left to purchase some of their food items at convenience stores or gas stations because a grocery store may be too far away. The Rush family says that they occasionally stop at gas stations to pick up food items, but try to avoid it as best they can.

“If we can’t make it to town on gas, or if we’re real thirsty, but we try not to stop at those places,” Rush said. “When you’re out of the town like that, you’re talking a Mountain Dew instead of being $1.50 they’re going to try to charge you $3. That’s when you have to use your brain and say ‘well, do I wait, don’t I have it, or do I need to go to town and just pick up something in bulk instead.’”

Food items at gas stations and convenience stores tend to be less nutritious and more expensive than those at grocery stores. Even though it is closer, the nearest gas station from the Rush residence is still seven miles away.

Rush also says that he and his family look for volunteer opportunities on Facebook where they can work for food.

“We usually do that once, twice a month because we just don’t want to hinder people,” he said. “Let somebody have it that week that needs it more than us.”

Hunter Morrison
WUWF Public Media
Goats on the Rush property

Those who live in food deserts are at greater risk for malnutrition because of a lack of access to grocery stores and nutritious food. Oftentimes, this includes a lack of access to essential food items such as fruits and vegetables.

“[The hardest part is] sometimes not eating the healthiest foods,” Rush said. “Sometimes when we eat during the week, we basically have leftover night. We won’t sit down as a family, we just eat the leftovers and eat in the living room instead of the kitchen table, trying to make it fun.”

If you are someone you know is struggling with food insecurity, visit Feeding the Gulf Coast’s Find Help page. You can also dial United Way of West Florida’s 2-1-1 resource service line.

This story is part of a series about food deserts in Northwest Florida. For more information about food deserts, click here.

Hunter joined WUWF in 2021 as a student reporter.