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).
In 2017-2018, I interviewed a variety of community key informants in an Appalachian Ohio study area, 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.
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.
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 Studies, 57(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 Studies, 42, 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 & Practice, 4(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 Geography, 54, 139-148.
 This research was funded by USDA NIFA Award #2016-6701925177, Biodiversity, ecosystem services, and the socioeconomic sustainability of rural forest-based communities, 2016-2021