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How healthy are the food options in your rural community?

How healthy are the food choices in your community?

It's not a question I'd given much thought prior to a couple weeks ago, when I posted a story on agweek.com about a study that looked at food purchases across the country. The study determined the least healthy food purchases, on average, were made in Musselshell County, Mont.

The story in question equated food purchases in the county with the way people eat in the county and, thus, how healthy the people there are. I don't know whether that adds up in other places, but it's probably not fair in Musselshell County.

Why? Well, if you'll pull out your map of Montana, you'll see that Musselshell County borders Yellowstone County, home of the state's largest city, Billings.

The county seat, Roundup, is home to Roundup High School, which was in my high school's district for basketball and volleyball. The Roundup High School girls volleyball team was legendary in the late 1990s and early 2000s, once dispatching my team in three straight sets that took less than 20 minutes. (I remember that because my dad, expecting the beating that ensued, timed it for posterity.) My point is, I know very well that the people of Musselshell County are not unhealthy.

The story was written by the Washington Post, a news partner of our parent company, Forum News Service. On the whole, the Post stories to which we have access to publish are high quality, well written and interesting. This one had some problems, which readers immediately pointed out.

As anyone from the Billings area can imagine, many people in Musselshell County take a short drive south into Billings to buy their groceries. It's unlikely they're making more unhealthy choices than anyone anywhere else. They just aren't making those healthy choices in Musselshell County.

I published the story on the Agweek website not because I necessarily agree with its premise. First of all, it's about the food system, which we cover. But beyond that, I decided it was important information for our readers to consider, even if the way it was written may have made it somewhat incendiary to people in our region.

The article made me think about what choices people in small towns have for purchasing healthy food. I live in a small town, too, and I do most of my shopping at cities half an hour or an hour away. Though what I buy in the bigger towns tends to be healthy, I make last-minute and splurge purchases closer to home.

But what about the people who can't hit the interstate to get their groceries? Can they fill their nutritional needs with the stores we have? We're luckier here than in many towns, because we do have some options, but I'm not entirely sure how "healthy" a study would find our choices, either.

Sometimes it takes someone from the outside looking in to point out something we wouldn't see otherwise. In this case, I think it's worth thinking a little deeper about the food options we have in rural areas and what those options mean for those who can't just head to the next town to fill their cupboards.

What about your town? Can you buy the produce, dairy, protein and whole grains you need to keep your family healthy? How much of a hardship is eating healthy in your community for people of lower incomes or the elderly or others who can't drive?

The Washington Post story took a possible correlation and made it seem as though it was a causation. That's not good journalism. But the article made me think outside of what I thought I knew and beyond my own experiences. Even though the premise of the article was off, I'm glad it sparked a conversation.

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