Bridging the Opportunity Divide

How Do You Get People to Eat Better? Bring Healthy Food to a Nearby Corner

August 7, 2015
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How Do You Get People to Eat Better? Bring Healthy Food to a Nearby Corner
The Healthy Retail SF program has helped to bring fresh grocery options into San Francisco's food deserts. Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
Go inside the program that's improving the lives of San Francisco's poor.

The cash register has never been busier at Radman’s Produce Market in San Francisco. At 201 Turk St., it’s located smack in the middle of the Tenderloin district, a neighborhood associated with homelessness, substance abuse and extreme poverty and one that you don’t want to be wandering around late at night. Within a two-block radius of Radman’s corner store, police recorded 730 crimes within the past six months.

All of which makes the offerings on owner Fadhl Radman’s shelves even more surprising. He doesn’t peddle the junk food, liquor, cigarettes and pornographic magazines that are the primary items sold at many other bodegas in the area. According to a 2011 count, there are 270 outlets selling tobacco in the district — more than one quarter of all the outlets in the entire city, all condensed in a couple blocks.

“Poison, it’s just poison” is how resident Steve Tennis defines what’s in stock at many other corner stores. “Mothers with little kids in their arms [or] in their strollers. What is the first thing these children see that are two, three years old? Candy, alcohol, dirty books. Nothing healthy,” he tells New American Media. “If this is your experience, week in and week out, it doesn’t take long for you to get hard wired to that food source.”

Because of recent renovations to the store he’s operated since 1998, Radman now sells fresh fruits and vegetables, many farmed in the nearby Central Valley, and has a butcher cutting and grinding meats. He stocks 50 types of fresh produce — staples like apples, oranges, bananas, grapes and tomatoes and less familiar items like celery, broccoli, red lettuce, Italian parsley and kale. It’s made his 2,250-square-foot store a much-needed island of greenery in the impoverished district.
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“The whole idea is to try to modify people’s eating habits,” Radman tells the San Francisco Examiner. “Build up their interest in fruits and vegetables.” At the same time, he can improve his bottom dollar, gaining a bigger profit from produce with a higher sales margin.

Unable to persuade a full-service supermarket to open nearby, the Tenderloin has always struggled with nutritional offerings. The changes to Radman’s store were backed by a city program known as Healthy Retail SF, a $60,000 effort to fix up five stores in San Francisco neighborhoods defined as food deserts, a low-income area lacking healthy food providers. Healthy Retail SF simply looked at existing retailers in the community and invested in the best assets: the bodegas. The collaborative effort between the Mayor’s Office, the Office of Economic and Workforce Development (OEWD) and the Department of Public Health, gives funds and business advice about how to reconfigure shelving and store layout, upgrade refrigerator units and advertise successfully.

“Small investments can go a long way towards creating healthier and more sustainable communities,” Joaquin Torres, OEWD’s deputy director, writes in an email.

After the new upgrades are installed and stores reopen, the next challenge is ensuring the business’s long-term stability. The program’s backers liken their efforts to a three-sided stool: community engagement, physical redesign and business development. Without any of the three, the plan teeters over.

A 2012 survey found that 57 percent of Tenderloin citizens do most of their shopping in other parts of San Francisco. That purchasing power — two-thirds of residents spend more than $100 a month on groceries — means that about $11 million leaves the Tenderloin every year. Redirecting those dollars from Safeway and other supermarkets back into local businesses isn’t easy, but so far, the city’s efforts have gained traction. One store has increased overall sales by 23 percent since the remodel, and all the locations have documented increase in the number of sales of healthy fruit.

You can’t change neighborhoods overnight. But as Healthy Retail SF is finding, adding produce to bodega shelves is a good place to start.
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