GREENSBORO — The new map worries Mark Smith.

As an epidemiologist with the Guilford County Department of Public Health, Smith keeps track of “food deserts” — low-income areas where at least 33 percent of the people are more than a mile away from a grocery store or supermarket.

Last year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s map of Guilford County showed 15 such areas, home to nearly 30,000 people.

This year, the map shows 24 deserts — 17 in Greensboro and seven in High Point.

More than 35,000 people in Guilford County have poor access to healthful food, according to the map. More than 18,000 of those are low-income.

Guilford’s food deserts are mostly low-income areas: south of Kivett Drive in High Point, much of east Greensboro and a large rural swath on the edge of McLeansville.

“We’ve picked up a few census tracts since the last map, but we seem to have lost some grocery stores, too,” Smith said.

Critics of how the USDA defines food deserts say too much emphasis is placed on income and location and not factors like education, nutritional knowledge and access to transportation.

Taking that into account, the new Food Access Research Atlas has made some changes — including designations for areas where poor people don’t have their own transportation.

“It’s good that they’re including access to transportation now,” Smith said. “That is a big part of the problem. A lot of people just don’t have cars.”

The new map shows that some census tracts in High Point and Greensboro contain areas where between 10 and 50 percent of all households are without vehicle access and live more than a half-mile from a good grocery store.

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That’s a problem 26-year-old Mario Handler knows firsthand.

He opened his refrigerator last week to find nothing but a jar of mayonnaise and a couple of sodas.

Handler hasn’t had a car for more than a year.

He’s out of work and hasn’t had the money.

So he got on his bike and rode a little more than a mile to Lee’s Curb Market on East Lee Street.

The crowded little convenience store does a brisk business in beer, cigarettes, chips and sodas.

But little in the way of healthful food.

Drug dealers loiter on the corner. Police officers say they don’t go in when they’re out of uniform.

A few small refrigerators in the shop’s corners have milk, eggs, bread and bologna to make sandwiches for Handlers’ two little sons.

Said Handler: “It’s not like the best selection, but you can get by.”

The USDA map shows Lee’s Curb Market on the border of a food desert area that has 738 households without vehicle access and more than a half-mile from a grocery store with fresh produce. In the same area the number of households without a vehicle and more than a mile from such a grocery store is 250.

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Last year, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention awarded North Carolina a $7.4 million Community Transformation Grant to begin tackling the problem.

The region got $420,000 for five years.

Smith said Guilford’s health department went to work surveying small local convenience stores and curb markets that fill the gap left in areas where major grocery store chains don’t locate.

It found that 80 percent of the stores they surveyed carried enough food — such as milk, bread or eggs — to qualify to accept Electronic Benefit Transfer cards issued through food-assistance programs.

But only about 15 percent had any fresh produce.

The county is now working to improve that number.

It also has been working with local farmers markets to get them to accept benefit transfer cards, making them more of an option for low-income households.

Deep Roots Market, a local co-op that concentrates on organic and natural foods, recently moved to 600 N. Eugene St. in Greensboro — the edge of a food desert, according to the USDA map.

General manager Joel Landau said the lack of competition was attractive to Deep Roots, and because of the store’s special products, people will come to their new location from all over the county.

That’s not the case with most supermarkets, which Landau said keeps them out of densely populated, low-income areas.

“We’re about 10,000 square feet,” Landau said. “That’s a good size for us. But most chain stores, if they can’t do 30,000 or 40,000 feet, there isn’t enough business potential for them.”

Landau said most stores that see large single-income family and low-income populations stay away.

“It’s challenging for chain stores, economically,” Landau said. “That’s why I really think we need to get back to smaller, local markets.”

Smith said the county can’t force grocery stores to locate in underserved areas. But they can think outside the box.

“There’s a lot that still needs to be done,” Smith said. “And there’s a lot more we can do. We’d like to start to see that map change.”

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Contact Joe Killian at (336) 373-7023, and follow @Joekillian on Twitter.

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