BOGATA — Residents might not choose “food desert” to describe their southwestern Red River County city, but a new grant coming their way will help address local food insecurity, as well as assist local churches and nonprofits that work hard to fill the gaps.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines a food desert as a place lacking access to fresh fruit, vegetables and other whole foods due to lack of grocery stores and healthy food providers. Bogata meets that definition as it has zero grocery stores within 10 miles of it, economic development coordinator Lee Williams said.
Food deserts are a main driver behind the national obesity epidemic, according to the American Nutrition Association. While food deserts are often short on fresh fruits and vegetables, they have local quick marts that provide “a wealth of processed, sugar and fat-laden foods that are known contributors to our nation’s obesity epidemic,” the ANA wrote.
Williams said the city’s food situation will be one of the first areas addressed by a newly awarded grant — what the city council called a “big step forward.” As previously reported by The Paris News, Bogata received a Rural Community Development Initiative grant for a quarter of a million dollars.
Provided through Communities Unlimited, the grant utilizes money from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and other state and federal agencies, Communities Unlimited director of community sustainability Debbie Luther said. The grant will run for three years or until the $250,000 is expended.
“The grant will allow us to look at several issues, including the food desert,” Williams said. “We’re looking at a dying community here. How will we revive it?”
City officials are putting together strategies to provide access to healthy produce and fresh meats, as well as supplement and attract more businesses to the area, Williams said. But food access is only a small part of the bigger picture: nutrition education.
“Education is a big part of building healthy habits,” Williams said. “There are no existing resources besides local churches and the food pantry. We are breaking ground on this.”
The Bogata food pantry, a nonprofit connected to First United Methodist Church, serves up to 130 families, lead volunteer Stephanie Blair said. It plays a crucial role in addressing the area’s food insecurity and nutritional needs.
“We put thought behind what we’re serving as far as, if you had to make a meal on what you got just from this one place, would that need be met?” she said. “And for the most part, we do.”
The pantry goes beyond offering just canned goods. It stocks produce, meat, a variety of breads and even desserts. The pantry also makes seasonal food efforts; it has an uptick of recipients in November as opposed to December, Blair said. While she doesn’t know why that is, the pantry tries to provide everything necessary for a home-cooked Thanksgiving meal, and Blair spends extra time putting together shipments with unique products.
“We try to hit all the food groups. I love to shop,” Blair said, laughing.
The pantry is funded by local churches, which assist with food payments ranging from $900 to $1,200 per shipment. The stock travels via truck to Bogata from East Texas Food Bank in Tyler.
Blair said the pantry’s goals are to continue improving the quality and quantity of the food it offers and partner with the community to meet food needs — something the City Council, Williams and community volunteers all agree on.