Exploring Food Security in Southeast Ohio

Food insecurity, defined by the USDA as “…a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active and healthy life,” is a national problem. More than 10 percent of U.S. households were food insecure as 2019, before the current pandemic and related recession. But food insecurity is not uniformly distributed across the country. Ohio had the third-highest share of households experiencing “very low food security” among all U.S. states from 2012 to 2014. Southeast Ohio, in Ohio’s rural Appalachian region, has particularly high rates of food insecurity.

We are exploring the role of healthy food access on food insecurity in and around Athens County in Southeast Ohio. This work is being done in partnership with three local organizations – ACENet, Community Food Initiatives, and Rural Action – that provide area residents with locally-grown fresh produce via market-based and donation-based programs. Along with evaluating the programs themselves, our rich longitudinal survey data, collected from 841 households in the region at three timepoints in 2020 and 2021, are allowing us to explore a variety of interesting and important questions.

Figure 1 shows the food security status of households who took part in our survey. Among this sample, close to a quarter of households experienced some degree of food insecurity in June 2020 which greatly exceeds the national average. Existing literature suggests a reciprocal relationship between food insecurity and health. This is corroborated by our study. Approximately 1 in 6 (16%) survey respondents perceived their health to be ‘fair’ or ‘poor’. As we can observe in Figure 2, self-perceived health status is lower among individuals from households experiencing food insecurity.

Diet quality – which is enhanced by the consumption of healthy foods, like fresh produce – has been put forth as an important factor in the food security-health relationship. Poor access to (e.g., geographic proximity) and affordability of nutritious foods are considered two possible factors for the poorer diet quality observed among those in food insecure households. Food sourcing – that is, where people shop for or access food – can influence diet quality. Figure 3 shows primary food shopping location of our survey respondents by food security status. People in households experiencing very low food security shop more frequently at discount stores (11% vs 5%) and less frequently at grocery stores (16% vs 21%) than their fully-secure counterparts. Given what is known about the more nutritious stock of foods in grocery stores relative to many other store types, these food sourcing differences may have bearing on the diet and health of food insecure households in Southeast Ohio. Healthy food access initiatives, such as those implemented by our study partners, may help to mitigate this complex set of issues among residents. Future research by our team will explore these and other questions in more depth.

Figure 1: Food Security Status among a Convenience Sample in Southeast Ohio (June 2020)


Figure 2: Self-perceived Health Status by Food Security Status (June 2020)


Figure 3: Primary Food Shopping Location by Food Security Status (June 2020)

Note: Grocery Store (e.g. New Market), Convenience Store (e.g. Ron’s Auto and Convenience Store), Discount Store (e.g. Save A Lot), Superstores (e.g. Kroger), Farmers Market (e.g. O’Bleness Hospital [Farmers Market])


Lei Xu (PhD Student), Department of Agricultural, Environmental, and Development Economics, The Ohio State University

Dr. Zoë Plakias (Assistant Professor), Department of Agricultural, Environmental, and Development Economics, The Ohio State University

Dr. Jennifer Garner (Assistant Professor), Food and Nutrition Policy at the John Glenn College of Public Affairs, The Ohio State University


Research Team (alphabetically): Shahwar Ali (MPA Student), Joe Barbaree (Sustainable Agriculture Program Manager, Rural Action), Patrick Creedon (Research Associate, OSU), Jennifer Garner (PI; Assistant Professor, OSU), Andrew Hanks (Assistant Professor, OSU), Susie Huser (Donation Station Program Director, Community Food Initiatives) Kathleen Krzyzanowski Guerra (PhD Student, OSU), Zoë Plakias (Assistant Professor, OSU), Tom Redfern (Sustainable Agriculture Program Director, Rural Action), and Lei Xu (PhD Student, OSU).

This research was supported by a grant from The Ohio State University’s Initiative for Food and AgriCultural Transformation (InFACT), a Discovery Themes program (learn more at discovery.osu.edu/infact); a grant from the Office of Outreach and Engagement at The Ohio State University; Award Number UL1TR002733 from the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (#5591); and, the Clinical Research Center/Center for Clinical Research Management of The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center and The Ohio State University College of Medicine in Columbus, Ohio.


[USDA] USDA Economic Research Service. (2019a). Definitions of Food Security. Retrieved from https://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/food-nutrition-assistance/food-security-in-the-us/definitions-of-food-security.aspx

Gundersen, C., Engelhard, E., & Waxman, E. (2014). Map the meal gap: Exploring food insecurity at the local level. Applied Economic Perspectives and Policy36(3), 373-386. https://doi.org/10.1093/aepp/ppu018

Food system challenges in rural forested communities

There is increasing awareness of food access and availability challenges in so-called food deserts (too little available food) or food swamps (too much low-quality food). One helpful geographical insight from prior research is that as cities expand into surrounding countryside, new retail developments follow, and big grocery stores are often to be found in the suburbs or beyond the city limits, while inner city grocery stores close as wealth and population density decline (Hamidi 2020).

My team has been looking at the complexities of food accessibility at the urban-rural interface, particularly in rural regions with substantial forest cover. While cities have sprawled into surrounding countryside, formerly remote rural areas have been pulled into new relationships with cities, in the form of commuting (Olson and Munroe 2012), or as new “bedroom” communities for city dwellers who want a more rural lifestyle, or as a weekend “getaway” to recreate in nearby forests (Munroe et al. 2017, van Berkel 2014).

Figure 1: Main thoroughfare in Shawnee, Perry County Ohio. Population 319 in 2019. Photo Credit Darla Munroe

In 2017-2018, I interviewed a variety of community key informants in an Appalachian Ohio study area[1], comprising of small towns in Athens, Hocking and Perry counties. Though my central focus was on small town resilience to big employment shocks (Morzillo et al. 2015), the complexities of food in this region were a common theme among respondents. These towns have often surprising mixtures of high poverty, significant forest tourism, and small group business initiatives. Specifically, Athens County, Ohio, is trying to capitalize on new biking trails where weekend cyclists from all over the state come to ride hard and then drink craft beer. Schools are promoting entrepreneurship, encouraging students to create sustainable livelihood strategies for themselves via food trucks, farm-to-table programs or other such small-scale ventures.

At the same time, grocery options in small towns can be limited. Many communities do not have a dedicated grocery store, and they must rely on what’s obtainable at the convenience store if driving to the Kroger in the next town over is not an option. Public transportation is particularly limited in Appalachian Ohio; the rural poor often locate in places where walking to a post office to collect benefits is possible, and thus are limited to whatever food options might be available in these village centers. Within the state or even larger region, if you are laid off from your job, you might move to a town where you have a family connection, however distant. These areas offer a rural quality of life, and a low cost of living, which appeals to rich and poor alike.

Figure 2: Downtown Glouster in Athens County Ohio. Population 1896 in 2019. Photo Credit Darla Munroe

As a geographer, it is hard to see small towns reorienting their economic development strategies to cater to (relatively) wealthy tourists while locals are dependent on whatever the local dollar store might carry. At the same time, I marvel in the complexity of these urban-rural spaces (Irwin et al 2009) that defy easy categorization and rather call for much deeper collaboration and engagement. For those students in the 6th grade onward who are being taught that their economic futures are, at least in part, in their own hands and subject to their own imaginations, I can’t wait to see what this landscape might yield in decades to come.

Darla Munroe

Professor and Chair

Department of Geography, The Ohio State University



Hamidi, S. (2020). Urban sprawl and the emergence of food deserts in the USA. Urban Studies57(8), 1660-1675.

Irwin, E. G., Bell, K. P., Bockstael, N. E., Newburn, D. A., Partridge, M. D., & Wu, J. (2009). The economics of urban-rural space. Annu. Rev. Resour. Econ.1(1), 435-459.

Morzillo, A. T., Colocousis, C. R., Munroe, D. K., Bell, K. P., Martinuzzi, S., Van Berkel, D. B., … & McGill, B. (2015). “Communities in the middle”: Interactions between drivers of change and place-based characteristics in rural forest-based communities. Journal of Rural Studies42, 79-90.

Munroe, D., Gallemore, C. & Van Berkel, D. (2017). Hot Tub Cabin Rentals and Forest Tourism in Hocking County, Ohio. Revue économique, 3(3), 491-510. https://doi.org/10.3917/reco.683.0491

Olson, J. L., & Munroe, D. K. (2012). Natural amenities and rural development in new urban‐rural spaces. Regional Science Policy & Practice4(4), 355-371.

Van Berkel, D. B., Munroe, D. K., & Gallemore, C. (2014). Spatial analysis of land suitability, hot-tub cabins and forest tourism in Appalachian Ohio. Applied Geography54, 139-148.


[1] This research was funded by USDA NIFA Award #2016-6701925177, Biodiversity, ecosystem services, and the socioeconomic sustainability of rural forest-based communities, 2016-2021