Bridging the Opportunity Divide

Which U.S. City Is Close to Eliminating Its Food Desert?

August 12, 2015
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Which U.S. City Is Close to Eliminating Its Food Desert?
The Food Trust works with corner store owners to help them add more fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy and whole grains to their shelves. Courtesy The Food Trust
Almost a quarter million people are eating healthier, thanks to one innovative idea.

Food deserts — areas without access to nutritious food — dot urban areas. As we previously pointed out, attracting a big-box supermarket isn’t the only solution. San Francisco is proving this by adding fresh produce to bodegas that once relied solely on peddling booze and smokes to the community.

The City by the Bay’s comprehensive approach can be traced back to an initiative started nearly 25 years ago. The Food Trust of Philadelphia, one of the most ambitious programs of its kind in one of America’s poorest and most unhealthy big cities, began in a public housing development in South Philly, with volunteers piling mounds of fruits and veggies on one long table outside the project each week. Since 1992, they’ve taken their work beyond that first farmer’s market, improving access to healthy food and nutritional information for nearly 220,000 residents in poor neighborhoods — making Philadelphia one of the first cities to meet the First Lady’s “Let’s Move” challenge to eliminate food deserts entirely by 2017.

“We started to see that farmer’s markets provide seasonal access to fresh fruits and vegetables, not a long-term solution — or the only solution. They really only can open in summer on the East Coast. We realized it was really important to look at the longer term and more comprehensive approaches to food access,” says Candace Young, The Food Trust’s associate director of research and evaluation. Around 2004, “the first thing we did was we mapped out areas of the city that had low access to supermarkets and high-diet related deaths — the pockets of the city that needed better access. We sent that report to policy makers and practitioners, the health community and its advocates, the food retail community. What was built from there was this multi-million dollar public-private initiative to build new or even just renovate supermarkets around the whole state.”

Just how much of a difference can access to fruits and vegetables in a neighborhood actually make? Research shows that living in a food desert isn’t simply an inconvenience for locals or a matter of how long the bus ride will be; it’s linked to serious health problems like obesity, hypertension, heart disease and diabetes. But The Food Trust’s work appears to be making a dent. Between 2006 and 2010, obesity among kids in Philly decreased by five percent — the first downward trend since 1976.

A key aspect of The Food Trust’s work in Pennsylvania involved renovating bodegas — corner stores where the average elementary school student in Philadelphia buys 350 calories worth of food on each visit, according to a 2008 study. More than one quarter — 29 percent — stop in twice a day, five days a week. That means they’re consuming roughly an additional pound of food from this retailer every week.

In response, The Food Trust convinced corner store owners to sell more fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy and whole grains and offered money for renovations. Since the Healthy Corner Store Initiative launched in 2004, it’s established a network of 650 stores. With $30 million in public financing and $90 million in private financing, it can pay for upgrades that are as easy as buying new refrigeration for $500 and as tough as building a whole new mega-mart for several million, Young says. In total, the organization funded 1.67 million square feet of retail development and created 5,000 jobs.

“Corner store owners are a very different business than large supermarkets. They’re a convenience model: you want to get in and out. Oftentimes, you go in to buy chips and a drink, a pack of cigarettes or a lottery ticket,” Young says. “Partly what we’re trying to do is shift to a culture of health around corner stores, where they’re seen again as small grocery venues. Instead of packaged foods, I may need to grab eggs, some milk, some bread and a couple of fruits for me and for my family.”

There’s still some debate about whether these interventions are the best way to deal with food deserts. Some critics point to a lack of causal evidence and say the theory’s “intuitive” underpinnings don’t check out. “If you live next to a Mercedes dealership, that doesn’t mean you’ll buy a Mercedes,” Adam Drewnowski, an epidemiology professor at the University of Washington, tells the Washington Post. “And it’s the same with living next to a grocery store: That doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll start eating salads.”

After the first pilot at a handful of stores, The Food Trust documented a 35 percent increase in the sale of healthy items and an even bigger boost — 60 percent — in produce sales. That means $100 in extra profits every week for sellers.

Anecdotally, too, customers seem to be buying. “Now, when I’m talking to people who come into the store, they are asking: What do you have fresh today? And I can say I have apples. I have oranges. I have all kinds of stuff,” says Catalina Morrell-Hunter, one storeowner in North Philadelphia who joined the network after 15 years in business. “We have a refrigerator in the store that we didn’t have before. It has yogurt and fresh fruit and fresh vegetables. And I try to get other products that are better for you, healthier and lower calorie. I’m more conscious of that now.”

The Food Trust’s supporters point to a drop in obesity as evidence something’s clearly working, but they’ll also readily admit fresh food at corner stores isn’t the only explanation. In the City of Brotherly Love, access to fresh and affordable food, amenities for exercise and information to make healthy decisions all go hand-in-hand. Philly’s also added nearly 30 miles of bike lanes, launched a media campaign about sugary drinks that was seen 40 million times and established parent-driven “wellness councils” in 170 public schools.

“We believe that supermarket access is one piece of a comprehensive approach,” says Yael Lehmann, The Food Trust’s executive director. “While bringing in healthy food stores into neighborhoods, we also want to be teaching kids how to eat healthy in schools, we want to be having cooking demonstrations at recreation centers, running farmers’ markets in neighborhoods. All of these things combined is what can improve the health of people and their neighborhoods.”

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