Urban innovators bring healthy food back to the inner city
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.
According to a story in ColorLines (Summer 2005), the California Food Policy Advocates piloted this 'greening' concept at School Market corner store in the Fruitvale neighborhood of Oakland. Along with the Alameda County Public Health Department, the Advocates showed Tom Ahmed, the store's owner, how to care for fresh produce and provided his store with a refrigerator, a paint job, and Plexiglas windows to make the produce visible to passersby.
The process was not easy; like many liquor stores, School Market has faced crime problems, and the 'green' version of the store was no exception. Ahmed has been pleased to see neighbors buying lots of produce, though, and he now relies far less on liquor sales.
The pilot project has inspired greening initiatives around the country, many of them sponsored by the Healthy Community Store Network, a Food Trust spin-off that supports food projects nationwide.
If You Build It
Five years ago, tired of trekking across Chicago to get whole grains and fresh produce for her son Wade, who has severe food allergies, LaDonna Redmond decided to plant a garden in her backyard and grow her own food.
She and her husband then launched the Institute for Community Resource Development, a nonprofit that oversees a series of urban farm sites on converted vacant lots on the West Side of Chicago. These plots now produce 20,000 pounds of tomatoes, okra, greens, and other food each year.
She recently acquired the funding to develop a prototype of a grocery store that will 'bring the Whole Foods experience into underserved communities.' Unlike chain stores, the community-owned store will reinvest in the neighborhood -- by hiring locals, offering loans to new businesses, and maintaining a health-and-environment education center.
Redmond believes that by offering the benefits of healthy food to an underserved population, this model will come closer to the 'true' definition of sustainability, which includes diversity and accessibility. After a pilot project, the prototype will be available to other communities.
Healthy Produce on Wheels
To promote access to healthy food in West Oakland, Malaika Edwards and Brahm Ahmadi launched the nonprofit, youth-run People's Grocery store in 2001.
Since then, they've set their ideals in motion via the Mobile Market, the nation's first food co-op that makes house calls. The Mobile Market makes its rounds twice a week, offering a full inventory of produce, grains, and natural products. Housed in a souped-up van -- sporting solar panels and a funky orange-and-purple paint job -- and offering wholesale prices, it's become a neighborhood mainstay.
Farm Fresh Food for All: No Exceptions
Farmers' markets, urban gardens, and community supported agriculture programs (CSAs) have been making it easier for more people to get farm-fresh food.
Many CSA programs are making produce shares available at a weekly rate instead of requiring a lump sum payment up front, thereby diffusing the financial burden. More farmers' markets are accepting food stamps and federal subsidies for women, infants, and children (the WIC program). And the advent of electronic benefit transfer technology could streamline the process even further, allowing participants access to their benefits with a plastic debit card.
Even more hopeful are initiatives for young people. Programs like b-healthy! in New York City are winning the hearts of inner-city kids through their stomachs -- teaching them hands-on how to grow and prepare healthy food. The best part is this: The kids are enjoying it. And if you can get kids to like broccoli, anything is possible.
Andi McDaniel is a program associate for Renewing the Countryside.