Guerrilla Grocers

Urban innovators bring healthy food back to the inner city

| September / October 2005

West Oakland, California, is a junk food oasis. With 40 convenience and liquor stores, the neighborhood has more empty calories than Candyland. But if you're looking for an heirloom tomato -- or heck, even a bag of iceberg lettuce -- you're in the wrong part of town. West Oakland's more than 20,000 residents share only one supermarket.

One by one, grocery stores in low-income neighborhoods across the country are moving to more affluent areas, forcing residents to either bus across town or shop at the nearest corner store, where cigarettes and chips are a staple. This phenomenon, known as 'food redlining,' has left millions of inner-city residents with little or no access to healthy food.

Major supermarket chains typically avoid the inner city because of crime and land prices, not because there's a lack of customer demand. In fact, a recent study by the Initiative for a Competitive Inner City showed that low-income residents spend a hefty $85 billion each year on groceries. Chain supermarkets don't know how to harness those dollars, however. As Hannah Burton, senior associate at the Food Trust in Philadelphia, explains, chain stores often fail in low-income neighborhoods because they make 'cookie-cutter' decisions for all of their stores at once, rather than basing them on each neighborhood's unique characteristics.

Recognizing that corporate America is slow to change and even slower to step up to the plate in the name of public health, activists in cities across the country are finding new ways of bringing healthier food to the urban core. Here are a few of their latest endeavors.

From Booze to Broccoli: Greening the Liquor Stores

In many inner cities, liquor stores far outnumber supermarkets, and locals have come to rely on them for food. Unfortunately, liquor store snacks rarely add up to a balanced meal. So activists in Philadelphia, Chicago, Boston, and Oakland are working to exploit the accessibility of these neighborhood hot spots by integrating fruits and veggies into the inventory.

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