To the surprise of many Ashlanders, a huge part of their city made the federal list of "food deserts" — places where a high percentage of children, seniors or low-income people don't have a supermarket nearby and don't have the money or a vehicle to get good food.

To the surprise of many Ashlanders, a huge part of their city made the federal list of "food deserts" — places where a high percentage of children, seniors or low-income people don't have a supermarket nearby and don't have the money or a vehicle to get good food.

Normally confident of their nutritional savvy and food supply from gardens, five big markets and a growers market, Ashlanders largely expressed astonishment at the information contained in a report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

"That's ridiculous," said gardener-landscaper Jenny Kuehnle. "I don't understand that. It seems really strange to me. I can understand some people not being able to afford expensive food but not a food desert. That's shocking."

Oregon Action director Rich Rohde, who lives in Ashland's so-called food desert, faulted the zone for being entirely mapped in the lower-income part of Ashland, and added that the zone contains all five of the town's supermarkets — the Ashland Food Co-op, Safeway, Market of Choice, Shop N Kart and Albertsons.

"Yes, I'm surprised (at the listing)," said Rohde. "I would say no, it's not a food desert. Other parts of the county are much more serious. I think it comes from not having a good bus system in the low-income part of town, though it's not a terrible system.

"It's not a crisis. There are clearly low-income people in Ashland and there are decent places to buy food."

The Food Desert Locator put online by the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows most of Ashland below Siskiyou Boulevard in the food desert. The area is bounded by a line formed by Valley View Road, Highway 99, North Main Street, Van Ness, East Main Street, Walker Avenue, Siskiyou Boulevard, Crowson Road, Highway 66 and Interstate 5.

Food Co-op general manager Richard Katz said the "food desert" tag "doesn't make sense to me" because the co-op is close to a large number of households.

"If it's a desert, then the co-op is an oasis in the desert," Katz said, adding that solutions for the income and transportation problems seem "out of our hands." Of the 6,743 people in the zone, it describes:

Low access to supermarket or large grocery, 958 people or 14.2 percent; low income people with low access, 289 or 4.3 percent; children with low access, 201 or 3 percent; seniors with low access, 221 or 3.3 percent; housing units without vehicle, with low access, 23 or 0.8 percent.

Low access, it says, means no market within a mile. Its data comes from the census and is at http://www.ers.usda.gov/data/fooddesert/fooddesert.html.

Ashland lawyer-developer Lloyd Haines, who runs Sanctuary One for animals and grows a charitable vegetable garden on-site in the Applegate, said: "It's unfortunate, and I'm surprised to hear it. We've become a society of haves and have-nots in the last 30 years. As a society we have a responsibility to help those who need help."

Coming out of the co-op, Shana Lanston said, "It's absolutely ridiculous. I and my friends all grow food, and it's some of the most fertile land I ever saw." Food shopper John Hauschild said: "You're kidding. This is one of the best places to get food in the country. There are so many farmers and food drops."

Eating lunch in front of the co-op, Joseph Miller said the food desert tag is "indicative of the economy now. People are pretty tight and the co-op is terribly expensive, but we can grow 25 percent of our food in our yards if we take the initiative."

Ashland Mayor John Stromberg said he was leery of Ashland's inclusion on the list of food deserts.

"I'm generally wary when presented with an analysis based purely on statistics put together by someone possibly 3,000 miles away, and my wariness increases when the analysis has a sensationalized title like 'Food Desert,' " Stromberg said.

"They raise an important question, which is 'Do we know who within our community is having difficulty getting the essentials of life, that is food, shelter, medical care?' We only have indirect information at best and, in these times, people can easily fall through the cracks.

"I'm hopeful the process that has just been set up with the city's Homelessness Steering Committee will bring forth some proposals that relate to the issues raised by the 'food desert' study. The term 'homeless' doesn't just mean out on the street; it can also include people who are eating poorly in order to pay their rent or buy clothes for their children, just as an example."

The Food Desert map also called Talent and its surrounding area a food desert, saying 21.7 percent of residents had low access to food and 9.8 percent had low income and low access.

The Food Desert Locator identifies 6,500 food desert tracts in the nation and defines as "a low-income census tract where a substantial number or share of residents has low access to a supermarket or large grocery store. ... To qualify as a food desert tract, at least 33 percent of the tract's population or a minimum of 500 people in the tract must have low access to a supermarket or large grocery store."

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.