One unexpected element of sailing from the Midwest to the Gulf of Mexico is the amount of time spent in small rural towns. From Ashtabula, OH, to Oriental NC, and Moore Haven, FL, we’ve been leapfrogging from one to another to stop for gas or ice cream or boat supplies. My take-away from these stops has been a big ol’ privilege check, and a timely one at that. Not to mention my healthy middle class background and white skin, I’m about to enter an MFA program in the fall and commit fully to becoming a visual artist – a profession that is inherently quite privileged.*
Our tour of rural places over the past six months has opened my eyes to just how big of a head start I got in life. One glaring example of this is food. Or more specifically, where I buy my food. I grew up about a mile away from two large grocery stores that sat across a busy street from each other. Not only did they carry an enormous variety of products, they were locked in an amusing battle of one-upsmanship to expand their offerings. One would get a flashy new sushi bar and the other had one within a few months. Next came the olive bar, the expansive deli, the coffee shop in store, etc. This was my food paradigm; tubs full of artisan olives and the free cookies in the bakery.
Fast forward to 2016. The town we’re staying in right now, Moore Haven FL, has a population of 1,600 and no grocery store at all. If you want to buy food that isn’t Burger King or tacos there are two dollar stores in town to choose from. One of these barely even has a cold case, picture a little more than a gas station’s selection of food with a whole lot more junk food and cheap plastic crap on offer. The other carries exactly one choice for each basic product. What I considered “basic” suddenly seems absurdly snobby. Goat cheese, not basic. Leafy greens of any kind, not basic. Garlic, apparently not basic. In short, rural food deserts are real, people!
Just this morning NPR covered the closing of a Walmart Express in Oriental, North Carolina where we stayed for a couple of days back in November. We arrived in Oriental the same day that the last local grocery store in town closed its doors. Locals blamed the Walmart Express that had opened just a year earlier for taking away too much business from the independent store. Now Oriental is truly out of luck because not three full months after losing their local grocery, the Walmart has just closed, meaning the nearest grocery store or pharmacy is now 15 miles away. Suddenly even a crummy dollar store doesn’t sound so bad!
Though intuitively food deserts seem an inevitable consequence of the free market and the Walmarts of the world, researchers seem to have a hard time explaining their origins. Regardless of why they exist, the problem has serious implications regarding climate change due to the increased instances of severe weather events. When natural disasters like the historic flooding seen over much of the Midwest this year occur, there are times when towns are cut off from major highways and population centers for days at a time. If you don’t have a grocery store and your town is isolated by a flood or a hurricane, how do you feed people and get them their medicine? As Zion and I have dodged tornados while sailing across southern Florida we’re viscerally reminded of the increased instances of severe weather under climate change. For many reasons including food deserts rural Americans remain more vulnerable to natural disasters than ever before.
I had the same vague awareness of this problem that I did of many environmental topics before I left on this journey. But now instead of just reading about food deserts, I have to shop at those dollar stores myself! And if there is a major storm which knocks out power and services on land (this has happened twice to us since departing in July) we can’t get gas or do laundry just as others on land can’t do those things. What we can do is pack up and sail to a better spot, something that much of the 19% of Americans who live in rural areas can’t do.
Food privilege, checked.
* I couldn’t find an article to back this up so I’ll just share my account of the circumstances by which one becomes a professional artist. In short, you can’t do it without an excellent education and some kind of lucky break in which either through a connection, your family, or other means (for me this is an awesome partner who supports me) you are given the free time and funds to experiment for several years before sales of work can support you. In my view, hard work and talent just aren’t enough to earn the time you need to develop. I’d compare becoming an artist to becoming a professional athlete: you can have oodles of talent but if you don’t have the funds and time to train and work your way up, you very likely won’t ever go pro.