'Food deserts' sprout groceries that nourish people – and communities

A twist: Experts find that adding supermarkets to bring fresh foods to low-income urban neighborhoods aren't a panacea for obesity. But it's progress all the same.

Ann Hermes/Staff
A shopper organizes his purchases outside Vicente’s Tropical Grocery, where local shoppers can find fresh produce and Haitian specialties in an area lacking grocery stores in Brockton, Massachusetts.

Strolling down the well-lighted aisles of Vicente’s Tropical Grocery, the store’s promise – “where you feel at home” – doesn’t seem out of place. There are the staples of suburban shopping: Kool-Aid Jammers, Wesson oil. It’s only along the outer walls that, to the typical American shopper, things might look a bit odd.

Instead of meatloaf and mac n’ cheese, the in-store cafeteria serves griot pork and Djon Djon rice – Haitian specialties. Under the sign “Wall of Values,” stacked halfway up the ceiling, are enough 20- to 25-pound bags of rice to serve an army. And in the meat department, there are turkey necks – lots of turkey necks – and other unusual cuts of meat for sale. 

Just to the left of the center-cut pork chops, are cellophane packages with huge cubes of blackened meat labeled “Burnt Goat.”

Yet this is exactly what Brockton, Mass., needed on the corner of Pleasant Street and Warren Avenue, when the supermarket opened its doors in 2015. Serving a diverse community of largely low-income whites, Cape Verdeans, Hispanics, and Haitians, the store has revitalized an abandoned city block and brought fruits, vegetables, and other fresh food to an area where they were not readily available. It’s part of a national trend.

Even as Sears, Macy’s, and other traditional chains close stores – perhaps 3,500 this year in what some are calling a  “retail apocalypse" – grocery chains are opening new outlets. And the fastest growth is happening, not in wealthy suburbia, but in low-income neighborhoods where access to fresh food is often limited. From Kansas City, Mo., to Philadelphia, Chicago to Birmingham, Ala., partnerships of risk-taking entrepreneurs and public officials are quietly solving the nation’s “food desert” problem.

The results, however, are not quite what everyone expected. As researchers began to link obesity with lack of access to fresh food, the creation of nearby groceries was supposed to lead to weight reduction. It didn’t quite turn out that way, which is forcing public officials and private entrepreneurs to shift the way they approach the problem of healthy communities and how they measure success.

“I don’t call them food deserts; I call them resource deserts, because it's not just fresh food, these communities need everything,“ says Lauren Vague, business development manager at UpLift Solutions, a nonprofit consulting firm in Westville, N.J., that aims to strengthen underserved communities. They need an employer to create jobs. They need an anchor to draw shoppers so that the local business district can grow, she adds. Sometimes, it’s as basic as having a building large enough so the community can meet.

“We're absolutely in the process of solving this problem,” she says. “It's OK that it's complicated.”

More low-income neighborhoods

One complication is that, despite all the progress, food deserts are on the rise. In 2010, there were 8,959 food deserts – low-income census tracts where a significant portion of the population was more than a mile from a large grocery store or supermarket (or more than 10 miles in rural areas). By 2015, there were 9,245 low-income, low-access census tracts, a 3 percent increase, according to the US Department of Agriculture.

The increase has more to do with the rise in low-income neighborhoods (the lag effect of the Great Recession) than the closing of supermarkets, says Michele Ver Ploeg, an economist at the USDA’s Economic Research Service. In fact, the number of grocery stores, supermarkets, and supercenters in low-income census tracts went up 17 percent during that period, more than twice the growth rate of those stores in moderate- to high-income census tracts (although part of that growth occurred because of the rise in the number of low-income tracts).

“Independent grocers across the board have gotten interested in this,” says Brian Lang, director of The Food Trust's National Campaign for Healthy Food Access, a 25-year-old nonprofit that helped pioneer access to healthy food in low-income neighborhoods in Philadelphia. “It highlights what's possible when you bring together resources and attention to it.”

For entrepreneurs, opening a store in a food desert involves big risks.

“We were putting everything on the line,” recalls Jason Barbosa, president of Vicente’s, on the family’s decision to open the supermarket in 2015, in a neighborhood that had become “just scary.” Yet the new store was profitable within a year.

“This is the perfect spot for it,” says Kimberly Philippe, a former Brockton resident who moved out just before the store opened. Back for a visit, she decided to do some shopping. “A lot of people come shopping here and you get fresh food.”

Local entrepreneurs are not the only ones moving into food deserts. In Birmingham, Ala., a Publix is slated to go in where a former steel mill used to be. Whole Foods, through its foundation, is experimenting with stores in food deserts in Chicago, New Orleans, and Jackson, Miss.

Catering to local tastes

Being successful in food deserts can hinge on listening to customers, Mr. Barbosa says. Vicente’s, for example, descales its seafood at the point of purchase because that’s what customers said they wanted.

“I'm picky,” says Rose Ducaste, who waits 15 minutes while a Vicente’s staffer prepares her $45 cut of salmon just to her liking. “I thought he would give me attitude, but he was very patient.”

But the real reason she drives from another Boston suburb to shop here is the prices. “I spend half [here] what I spend over there.”

That's a key point that researchers have discovered as supermarkets have moved into food deserts. Consumers drive to a particular grocery store because of good deals, personal service, or some other personal preference, not because it’s the closest location. And because many poor people have cars, the traditional definition of urban food deserts (neighborhoods where a supermarket is more than one mile away) may not be the most useful one, says Ms. Ver Ploeg of USDA. The people with no car who really need to walk to a nearby grocery, no more than half a mile away, probably amount to only 4 percent of the US population, she says, nearly half of other estimates.

There’s another twist researchers are discovering: Just because a grocery moves in doesn't mean that people's eating habits change. In 2004, when it launched the Fresh Food Financing Initiative, Pennsylvania led the way in eliminating food deserts, using tax breaks and other subsidies to encourage grocers to locate in poor neighborhoods. Things really got rolling in 2010 when the federal government created the Healthy Food Financing Initiative. But a 2014 study of a Philadelphia food desert found no change in consumption patterns or weight loss once a supermarket moved in. A 2015 study of two Pittsburgh neighborhoods found that consumption habits improved in the one that got a new supermarket, but that change was not directly associated with shoppers at the new store. Policymakers “should proceed with caution,” it concluded, until researchers can better understand how stores can affect diet.

“It’s not ‘Field of Dreams,’ “ says Ms. Vague of UpLift Solutions. Building a new supermarket may not convince convenience-store shoppers to come. Behavioral changes require training people how to cook with fresh food and to use it before it goes bad – programs that UpLift and other groups incorporate as part of their efforts to alleviate food deserts.

'It creates hope'

This lack of healthy results doesn’t faze John Wood, the assistant city manager of Kansas City, Mo., who is leading the city’s efforts to revitalize the Linwood Shopping Center with a new supermarket. The economic benefits of bringing in supermarkets can improve health in other ways.

“For the people who like their Hostess cupcakes, the grocery store just represents another place to get a Hostess cupcake,” he says. But “it’s not so much just the food. It’s the living environment people are in. It’s the vacant lots and illegal dumping. That's where unhealthiness comes into play.”

Mr. Wood saw it first hand when the St. Joseph Hospital, which provided neighborhood jobs and anchored the area, moved away and the building was demolished. The Linwood Shopping Center, once a flourishing center for black-owned businesses, withered away. In the mid-1980s, a grocery store and shopping center prospered for a while and then fizzled.

Also, the rubble from the hospital was not removed for years. That was great news for the director of the 1983 made-for-TV movie “The Day After,” who used the site to depict the devastation from a nuclear attack in the movie’s climactic final scene. But for residents, it added to the negativity.

“Sort of like a rainy day that never went away,” says Wood. “People got used to seeing it the way it is” and not as an up-and-coming neighborhood.

Now, hopes are rising again. Late last month, the shopping center held a groundbreaking for a new Sun Fresh Market, which will be run by a local Kansas City family that owns other grocery stores. He hopes the facility will serve as an anchor and create health benefits in other ways.

“Economic development creates investment and it creates hope and attracts lenders and better insurance rates,” Woods says. “It attracts younger people. They're the ones who are going to be the healthier eaters.”

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