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Great Health Divide | Facing the lack of fresh food access in Appalachia

Updated: Jun. 7, 2021 at 4:18 PM EDT
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MAGOFFIN COUNTY, Ky. (WKYT) - Appalachia is no stranger to health hardships, and part of its struggle is a lack of access to fresh foods. Some families have to travel miles to get to a grocery store, and those stores face their own struggles keeping the lights on.

The IGA on the parkway in Salyersville is one of only two grocery stores in the entire county.

“It’s a very competitive business, even though there’s only two in Magoffin County,” said Jed Weinberg with CW Foods.

That’s two stores for roughly 12,500 people. The managers know many of their customers may be driving quite a distance to get to them. If they’re driving more than 10 miles, then health experts say they’re living in a food desert.

“Most households live within reasonable proximity to some convenience store that’s gonna have some foods,” said Dr. James Ziliak, professor of economics at the University of Kentucky.

Dr. Ziliak says families need access to fresh foods and produce. Their health depends on it.

“The evidence does suggest that food insecure families that do live closer to these big box groceries are actually at lower risk of food insecurities,” Dr. Ziliak said.

And people living in rural areas depend on those grocery stores to stay open to, in other words, keep the lights on.

And that’s where the Mountain Association comes in. They help grocers do just that.

They installed solar panels on the roof of a grocery store in Letcher County, and they’re about to the do the same in Salyersville.

“In the long run we want to be raising that level of assets in the community,” President of the Mountain Association Peter Hille said.

Once the panels are on the roof, the Salyersville IGA should see a savings of 25 to 30 percent on their electric bill.

“The bill is normally $17,000 to $18,000 a month, so it’s a good chunk of that,” Weinberg said.

CW Food’s Weinberg and Linsey Mosley weren’t necessarily looking for help. The Mountain Association found them.

“They shoot for stores and regions that electric rates are a little higher than what normal should be,” Mosley said.

They say the savings from the rooftop are going to slide all the way down to the register.

“Everyday low prices,” Mosley said.

“When you think of solar, you don’t think of Kentucky. It’s not the first thing you think of. I’ve personally been in the fossil fuel business a long time, but the technology is getting better, it’s getting cheaper, and more efficient,” Weinberg said.

And maybe, in coal country, it’ll help keep the lights on for grocers.

The Salyersville IGA expects solar panel installation to be complete this summer.

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