In Midwest, there are three local choices for food: a gas station, a church food bank and a bench outside of the post office.
There was a grocery store, off of state Highway 387. It closed either five or 10 years ago, depending on whom you believe at the Arcade Bar, a watering hole in nearby Edgerton. In either case, the store is locked and boarded up now. The driveway is overgrown, and a row of storage lockers sits in the field behind it. Were it not for the bartender pointing the store out, visitors would drive by, completely unaware that at one point, there was fresh food for sale in this small community.
Kaycee’s general store is 30 miles away. Casper and its handful of grocery stores is more than 40 miles to the south. But the Big D, the gas station, is in town. It has milk, cartons of eggs, pre-packaged cold cuts and frozen hamburgers. There are no fresh vegetables. The restaurant in the gas station has fried chicken meals that top 2,000 calories.
“There are people in need here,” Donna Miller said from her community garden in Midwest last week. She explained that the older residents give grocery lists to the younger people who drive into Casper.
Miller’s garden plot is on the south edge of town, near the school’s football field. A long time ago, there used to be a pharmacy and grocery store here. Now, tomato plants shoot up from planters. Pumpkin plants sprawl out over the ground. Green balls of cabbage sit nestled in upward-facing leaves.
A white picket fence surrounds the property. Miller said she picks what she needs and drops the rest, often pounds of produce, on a bench outside of the post office.
“Within minutes, it’s gone,” she said.
She sends beets to three or four nearby families, she continued, and more veggies to others. On Wednesday afternoon, she was filling a friend’s plastic grocery store bag with green beans and little red potatoes.
Not everyone here has Miller’s green thumb. Kim Ankley, the bartender at Arcade Bar, said he drives once a month to Casper to get his food. He scoffed when asked if he grows anything.
“Grow what? Wheat?” he said last week as Bill, the bar’s owner, looked on and laughed. The bar is on Edgerton’s Second Street. It doesn’t sell food, unless you count sodas, chips and cigarettes. Bill drives to Casper once a week to replenish his own pantry.
Midwest and Edgerton are in a food desert, defined generally as an area devoid of fresh and healthy food. The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines “low-access communities” as those where at least 33 percent of the population lives a mile away from a grocery store or supermarket. Broad swaths of Wyoming meet this definition, to the detriment of those who live there. Experts said the science isn’t strong on the effects of living in a food desert, but the effects of eating processed and packaged food are well documented: obesity, diabetes, certain kinds of cancers.
“I can only guess how stressful and how much it would affect your health to not have the nutrition available to you,” said Karla Case, who runs the Cent$ible Nutrition program in Natrona County. “Food justice, food equity, we’re all entitled to healthy food, but we don’t all have access to it. It kind of leads into the obesity problem we have. So much food is high calorie, high fat, high sugar.”
Midwest and Edgerton aren’t marked on a USDA food desert map, likely because of their low populations. But other parts of Wyoming are on the map: A huge chunk of the Wind River Reservation is marked as a desert. So, too, is the eastern half of Carbon County.
In Casper, much of the center of the town is bathed in green, denoting an area with low income and low access to food. The entirety of north Casper and much of downtown, stretching west to Poplar Street, south to Seventh Street and east to Beverly are marked as lacking access. The Agriculture Department found that nearly 17 percent of the people living in the area did not have their own car and lived more than a half mile from a grocery store.
The problem is most acute in north Casper, where the food options are two gas stations on Center Street, with a handful of restaurants — including a McDonald’s — to the west. Depending on where in north Casper someone lives, the nearest grocery store may be the Albertsons on CY Avenue, more than 2 miles away, or the Albertsons on Second Street, about a mile walk on foot.
“It’s an enormous strain when your refrigerator is empty,” said Christine Porter, a University of Wyoming professor and public health expert whose research has included the reservation food desert. “Even if you have money in the bank or an EBT card, if you can’t get there, that sort of scarcity, especially for children, it changes how they feel about food generally for the rest of their lives.”
Searching for a cause
Casper has two Albertsons, two Ridley’s, a Smith’s, a Natural Grocers and two Walmarts. There’s another smaller market, Grant Street Grocery, and a Target that has groceries but no fresh produce.
Most of those stores are clustered either on the west side of town, on CY Avenue near Poplar, or on the east side, along Second Street and closer to Wyoming Boulevard. There’s a hole in the middle, filled with restaurants, gas stations and liquor stores.
Kelly Weidenbach, the executive director of the Casper-Natrona County Health Department, said there were 13 grocery stores per 100,000 residents in the county here. The statewide average is 63. There are 84 fast food restaurants in Natrona County per 100,000 residents, compared to Wyoming’s average of 25.
When a town or neighborhood becomes a food desert can be easy to discern. The grocery store closed, or public transportation stopped carrying residents to a stop near the market. But the circumstances that led to the store being closed or the market opening elsewhere are trickier to pin down.
Jamie Purcell, the executive director of Wyoming Food for Thought, said “much of it is because of the modern food system,” which involved trucking in more packaged, canned food.
Weidenbach said there were people who moved to town and were “shocked” at the price of produce, which she attributed to how much food must be shipped into the state.
Purcell said the problem goes beyond the food system and into the broader society.
“I think that as Americans, right, there’s the American dream, you want to be successful,” Purcell explained. “In order to be successful, work hard. To work hard, work long hours. If you’re driving home, maybe to get the kids after school, you know in 30 minutes you have to be at taekwondo and music lessons, you’re going to go through the drive-thru.”
Porter agreed that the problem was systemic. She broke food deserts into two categories: those created by distance, typically seen in rural areas, and those that she called food swamps or “food apartheid,” which she defined as “when there are people and the markets for the food and the food isn’t available in spite of that.” She said that definition likely included north Casper.
In some cases, she said, classism and racism can play a role in what neighborhoods have access to which foods — and at what cost.
She and Purcell said public transportation is also a factor in limiting access to food. Take north Casper as an example: The bus has routes in the area, but it stops running at 6 p.m.
“You might be able to catch the bus if it’s still running in north Casper to get to the grocery store, but you won’t be able to get home,” Purcell said of people trying to grocery shop after leaving work. If those people miss the last bus, then they have to call a cab. “The cost to get to the grocery store is exponentially more than someone who owns a car.”
On top of that, those who take the bus are limited to buying what they can carry and what won’t melt on the trip home.
The experts ticked off other causes: zoning that blocks stores from going to certain areas; gas stations that can’t — or won’t — carry produce or other fresh food; and markets deciding a neighborhood doesn’t have wealthy enough residents to provide the profit margins the company wants.
“Even if they were interested, would they make enough money?” Weidenbach said.
Wyoming has relatively few people who use SNAP — commonly known as food stamps — compared to how many people qualify for the benefits. Experts said that was likely because of the stigma attached to receiving government help. But the cost is less food for the people and families who need it most.
“It’s a really vicious, vicious cycle,” Purcell said. “The big piece that’s missing there is that the dignity of access to healthy food is being taken away from people, in our community and other communities. People become victims of ‘at least they have something, at least they have McDonald’s.’”
There are paths forward, and some are already walking them.
In Midwest, Miller leaves produce from her garden on a bench. In Casper, Purcell’s organization has a handful of community gardens — with the largest one in north Casper, at 900 St. John — that are open to the public. The garden offers staples like tomatoes and cucumbers, as well as herbs like mint and basil. Wooden posts in the garden invite residents to take some. The food is free, the signs proclaim.
“What we’re trying to do is really start a movement that does not require a leader,” Purcell said. “If they walk by the garden, maybe they will say, ‘Oh man, the last time I had a cucumber fresh from the garden was 50 years ago.’ In doing so, (there’s) more dignity to access, fresher and healthier food in our community and an opportunity for neighbors to meet each other.”
Case, who’s Cent$ible Nutrition program is part of the UW Extension, helps her clients — typically low-income, “underserved” people — effectively use their SNAP dollars, covering everything from storing the food properly to how to cook healthier meals. She noted that the farmers market has a program that accepts SNAP benefits and gives recipients extra produce.
“It just seems like there’s a common belief that it’s too expensive to eat healthy,” she said. “They buy a lot of food that is, you know, packaged or canned, or maybe they eat at fast food restaurants. They just don’t have the information to understand how to afford healthier foods.”
All of the health officials who spoke with the Star-Tribune said there was no silver bullet to ending food deserts or solving food insecurity. They all said community gardens — like Donna Miller’s, or Food for Thought’s, or a similar one that Case’s program runs — are a good solution. But Weidenbach noted that Wyoming’s climate — specifically its lengthy winter — means gardens aren’t feasible all year.
She said that from her perspective, policy is more important.
“Why can’t we attract those businesses here?” she said of grocery stores.
Porter floated the idea of having a municipal SNAP program. The benefits would be redeemable only at local grocery stores, to try to keep those locations afloat. To bring more stores into neighborhoods and communities, the experts suggested Casper — and other Wyoming cities — examine zoning regulations and offer tax incentives to grocers. Casper’s bus system, which was nearly slashed by City Council, is also key.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offered similar suggestions.
“Local governments can improve local transportation like buses and metros to allow for easier access to established markets,” the agency wrote. “They can also change zoning codes and offer economic or tax incentives to attract retailers with healthier food offerings to the area.”
For now, Miller will continue harvesting her produce and leaving it on the bench in Midwest. She recently bought and tore down another house in town. She said some in the community have asked her to turn it into a garden. She’s hesitant, especially because no one in the community has offered to help start the second location.
But she spent $1,500 to put a water pit into the ground, just in case.