Rural life challenges healthy senior diets

By Bonnie Coblentz
MSU Ag Communications

MISSISSIPPI STATE — Eating well is critical to living well, but many senior citizens find both difficult to do, especially those who live in rural areas.

A study by the Southern Rural Development Center headquartered at Mississippi State University found that getting to a well-stocked, affordable grocery store is frequently a challenge for many seniors in rural communities. In “Rural Seniors Have Fewer Options for Healthy Diets,” researchers show that seniors must have access to quality foods at affordable prices to be able to make wise food choices.

An area is considered a “food desert” if those living there must drive 10 miles or more to the nearest supermarket or grocery store. A county is classified as a food desert if 50 percent or more of its population has limited access to a major supermarket. In the rural South, 256 of the 873 non-metro counties are considered food deserts.

In food deserts, often the only sources of groceries are convenience stores, which have the least variety of foods and usually no fruits or vegetables. The SRDC study looked at a six-county region in rural Texas where the average distance to a supermarket was 14 miles. For comparison, 70 percent of the low-income populations in the lower Mississippi Delta must travel 30 miles or more to reach a supermarket or large grocery store.

“Researchers find the more seniors in a population, the greater the distance to a supermarket,” the study states.

In Mississippi, 51 percent of the population lives in rural areas, and just 17 of the 82 counties are considered metropolitan, containing a city or town of more than 50,000 residents. The senior population is almost 13 percent of total residents, with the largest percentage of residents age 65 or older living in the most rural areas.

“Those seniors who were poor and had to travel farther to a supermarket or grocery store were the least likely to get the daily recommended allowances of fruits and vegetables,” the study states.
Brent Fountain, a human nutrition specialist with the MSU Extension Service, said a quality diet, or one that includes variety, is the foundation of good health.

“A diet should encompass all the food groups, including high-quality grains, especially whole grains, fruits and vegetables, beans, and lower-fat varieties of milk and meats,” Fountain said. “A diet that includes a good variety of these in the right proportion is a quality diet.”

Many chronic conditions such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, hypertension and high cholesterol are related to diet, although genetics play a big factor as well.

“Genetics loads the gun, but environment pulls the trigger. We don’t need to cloud the picture by hurting ourselves with our diet,” Fountain said. “A poor diet can contribute to and exacerbate chronic conditions.”

Fountain said a quality diet is affected by affordability, accessibility and acceptability of foods. Healthy food options must be available in stores, priced so consumers can afford them and be desirable items that people want to eat.

The study found that when convenience stores and fast-food restaurants make up the bulk of food options for seniors, their diets suffer. The study found that improving access to transportation and offering community support through senior meal centers, food pantries, community gardens and local farmers’ markets can help improve the diets of seniors.

“Many seniors do take notice of their diet, and all need to know that it is never too late to make a change,” Fountain said. “We’re living longer in general, and quality of life is just as important as quantity.”

Find the complete Southern Rural Development Center report, part of the Economic Research Service’s Research Innovation and Development Grants in Economics program, online at The SRDC is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture.