I-TEAM: Deadly COVID-19 can be made worse if you live in a food desert
AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - Is there a missing link when it comes to COVID-19 deaths?
We found people living in one area of Augusta are dying of COVID-19 at five times the rate of other Richmond County residents.
We also found the element linking these deaths are food deserts. Families that do not have access to healthy foods that boost their natural immunity and their overall health.
A USDA heat map of food deserts in the United States shows the vast majority of Richmond County does not have access or the means of getting healthy food options. We tracked COVID-19 deaths in Richmond County and found the highest number in these same areas.
Take a drive through the Harrisburg community in Augusta. You’ll see people on foot or on two wheels
They’re only modes of transportation for more than 30 percent of the people living here. Nancy and Rebecca Birchfield are more fortunate than many of their neighbors. They have a truck and drove to meet us.
“Buses can’t get down here with the roads,” Birchfield said. “They have to go across the street, and if you are elderly or disabled it kind of limits getting on the bus and getting around.”
The city bus is only an option for those healthy enough to walk to the nearest stop and who can afford the ride, which is not many.
According to a non-profit that collects demographics based on ZIP codes, nearly 70 percent of people here do not have a full-time job. Nearly half of the families live on less than $25,000 a year.
“The access to food and the way to get there is probably the hardest thing,” Birchfield said.
The Birchfields used to shop at the Kroger on Wrightsboro Road. It’s now a furniture store. All that remains of the Kroger on 15th Street is a parking lot.
The nearest grocery store still open is more than two miles in either direction, leaving Family Dollar as the only source for groceries for many in Harrisburg. When we stopped by to shop, we found no fresh fruit or vegetables -– only frozen options or fruit cups that often come with added sugar.
“You are left eating can goods, which do have health quality to them or a lot of boxed process foods and that’s what we see in Harrisburg,” Rebecca Van Loenen, director of Augusta Locally Grown, said.
“They have the lowest immune systems lowest access to healthy foods and highest rate of diet-related diseases,” Van Loenen said.
A study by Duke University shows residents with a chronic lack of access to adequate food resources are shown to have higher rates of diabetes obesity and cardiovascular disease -- all of which are at-risk factors for COVID-19.
“It doesn’t surprise me, but from data it doesn’t surprise me,” Van Loenen said.
We tracked COVID-19 deaths in Richmond County by ZIP code and found people living in food deserts are five times more likely to die of the virus. Twenty people died of COVID-19 in Harrisburg in just the first eight months of the pandemic. ZIP code 30909 is also in a food desert. Twenty-eight people died of the virus there. South Augusta is also another food desert. There, 39 people died. In comparison, only one person died in ZIP code 30805 and three in 30813 where there are plenty of nearby grocery stores.
“We have had some neighbors who have had issues with it one lady lost her father,” Birchfield said. “It’s been hard.”
Birchfield herself was at high risk for COVID-19 until she joined Augusta’s vegetable prescription program.
“I lost 45 pounds in that 6 months,” Birchfield said. “My A1C came down from 14 to nine and blood pressure medicine I was doubling now I half.”
Her results are not unique. We found Augusta University analyzed several years’ worth of data from more than a hundred participants in the program. All, like Birchfield, had diet related diseases and lived in food deserts. Each participant received a “prescription” to purchase fruits and vegetables from the local farmers market. They also attended monthly clinic visits and attended plant-based cooking classes.
“About one-third of our program participants every year go off their blood pressure or diabetes medications and about half of our program participants that graduate see a decrease in in their blood pressure medicine and diabetes medicine,” Van Loenen said.
“My immune system was one of the biggest improvements for me,” Birchfield said.
It also improved her chances against COVID-19.
Eating locally grown food not only improved the physical well being of people living in food deserts but also their mental health. The study was published this summer -- the first of its kind in the nation.
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