Natural Foods Merchandiser

Inner-city shoppers face food oppression

A commitment to eating healthy and organic foods always takes some extra effort, but it's an especially difficult endeavor for low income and inner-city shoppers. In many poor, urban areas, food choices are limited to convenience stores and corner shops. In West Oakland, Calif., for example, there are more than 40,000 residents, but not a single grocery store.

The People's Grocery in Oakland, founded by three community activists, is one of several recent efforts nationwide to bring healthy and affordable food to underprivileged residents. "We use the term 'food justice' to describe this disparity in access to food," says Brahm Ahmadi, cofounder and codirector of People's Grocery. "Our organization is focused on addressing the human right for affordable food."

The organization's flagship product is a store on wheels, a solar-powered biodiesel truck that operates three days a week, following a regular route through the neighborhoods of West Oakland to deliver natural foods to residents. People's Grocery grows about 25 percent of the produce for its business on urban farm plots. The rest comes from local farmers, while distributor United Natural Foods Inc. supplies bulk and packaged goods at a substantial discount, allowing People's to offer these items at below-market prices. People's Grocery also works on issues of economic development and public policy, which Ahmadi says are closely tied to lack of access to nutritious food and the dietary diseases that result. Citing high rates of heart disease and diabetes, Ahmadi says, "The lack of healthy food is a critical community need that has dire consequences for people's health."

Because People's Grocery believes that issues of food access, health and economic development go hand in hand, the organization has also established summer youth training programs focused on sustainable agriculture, financial literacy, nutrition and cooking, with the hope that the program can both produce opportunities for long-term employment and change the way people eat.

People's Grocery is currently in negotiations for a property in West Oakland and hopes to have a storefront location by this fall. In addition to providing affordable, healthy food, the store will have a you-pick-it herb garden and will emphasize educational programs.

"What People's Grocery is doing is absolutely incredible," says John Silveira, director of the Pacific Coast Farmer's Market Association, based in Concord, Calif. Silveira is also excited about PCFMA's joint venture with Kaiser Permanente to establish farmers' markets at a variety of Kaiser hospitals. "Ten years ago, if somebody had told me that a hospital is a great place for a farmers' market, I would have said they were crazy," he says. "But we and Kaiser have similar goals. We want people to make educated choices about food, diet and health."

PCFMA currently supplies 10 farmers' markets at Kaiser sites around California, and will likely open two more this year. Though farmers' markets may only reach 1 percent to 3 percent of the total population in an area, Silveira says they provide a great opportunity to educate customers and help to keep small family farms in business.

The idea for the Kaiser Permanente farmers' markets began three years ago with Preston Maring, an obstetrician and gynecologist at Kaiser Permanente in Oakland. "I saw vendors selling jewelry in our lobby, and I thought, why don't we do something consistent with the mission of our program, with a focus on prevention and health maintenance?" Maring says. He set up the first market at Kaiser in Oakland, and the model has been so successful that there are now 22 Kaiser-sponsored markets in five states.

"The third market we set up was in Richmond, a low-income community that has very little access to fresh fruits and veggies," Maring says. The Kaiser Permanente staff in Richmond created a farm-stand model for their market, in conjunction with a community nonprofit and the local health department.

Each Kaiser market is different, with most selling a mix of organic and conventional produce. In one facility, a staff dietitian runs cooking classes for local children in an effort to change eating habits. Other markets are trying box-scheme style delivery of fresh fruits and vegetables to Kaiser employees and local residents. In San Jose, Calif., the Kaiser hospital has sponsored a cooking demo van that travels to schools and community events, and most of the markets have information booths with health educators and dietitians available to answer customer questions. The Richmond market has begun delivering unsold produce to local neighborhoods for free. "They pack it all up in a van and take it to a church parking lot in a community that has very little food security, then pass out fresh fruits and vegetables to local residents," says Maring.

Though these efforts reach only a small percentage of the population, especially in inner-city areas, Maring believes that they can begin to change residents' eating habits. "We don't pretend we're reaching inner-city populations in great numbers," he says. "But we're finding that shoppers are being exposed to new and different kinds of fruits and vegetables they haven't had before, and our hope is that this learning is taken back to their families." Maring also posts weekly recipes on his Web site so people with Internet access understand the variety of recipes they can use to prepare their market bounty.

Urban gardening is another method of delivering fresh foods and vegetables to inner-city residents. Organizations participating in gardening education efforts can be found from coast to coast, including Added Value & Herban Solutions Inc. in Brooklyn, N.Y., Growing Power in Milwaukee, City Slickers in West Oakland and The Food Project in Boston.

The Food Project runs four small plots of land within the city of Boston, as well as a 30-acre farm in Lincoln, Mass., says Danielle Andrews, the organization's urban grower. The result is 200,000 pounds of food per year, which the Food Project distributes through a variety of means. About a third is delivered to shelters and food pantries.

The Food Project also sponsors a farmers' market in a low-income neighborhood. To make its offerings more appealing, the produce is priced to match that in conventional supermarkets, rather than at the premium usually given to organic offerings. The nonprofit is able to absorb the cost because youth volunteers supply most of the labor involved in delivering as well as growing the food—typically one of the biggest expenses in producing organic food. In addition, the organization runs workshops on urban agriculture and nutrition, hoping to empower residents to make healthier dietary choices that will have long-term impact on their quality of life.

City Slickers currently runs five inner-city garden plots and sponsors a weekly farmers' market. The nonprofit hopes to install 50 backyard gardens in the coming year, with follow-ups from expert gardeners to ensure the gardens keep running.

One of the biggest impediments to offering good food to urban residents is the notion that there isn't enough buying power to support full-size stores, says Ahmadi of People's Grocery. "But low-income consumers make up 40 percent of food retail and spend $85 billion a year on food in this country," he says. In fact, they often spend more on food than residents of wealthier neighborhoods because the pricing at convenience and corner stores is well above supermarket prices. "We know there is a demand and a need for these products," Ahmadi says. "If they can be made available conveniently and affordably, residents will buy them." With effort, creativity and a vision that goes beyond the bottom line, more and more organizations are stepping up to the challenge.

Mitchell Clute is a freelance writer based in Crestone, Colo.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVII/number 3/p. 94-95

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