Food deserts

Distance and income leave some neighborhoods hungry for good food

BY BILL KNIGHT

The need is chicken-or-egg.

And meat and fruit . . . .

Neighborhoods need full-service groceries for consumers to shop for healthy food, but businesses need customer bases before they can locate to areas.

“We look at geographic gaps, areas that are left unserved,” says John Elliott, Public Affairs Manager for Kroger’s division supervising Peoria, where the chain’s Wisconsin Avenue location is one of the few supermarkets not in north Peoria.

“That has to balance,” he continues. “Each store is its own profit center [and] has to stand on its own. It’s a matter of a sufficient flow of customers. We want to do business, but we still won’t fill all the food-desert gaps.”

The “food-desert” gaps may seem odd to face in February – National Canned Food Month and National Snack Food Month. However, it’s also Berry Fresh Month, National Sweet Potato Month and AARP Hunger Awareness Month, and there’s no time like the present, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Peoria City Councilwoman Denise Moore.

“Families lacking a balanced diet experience poor health care,” she says, “not only for growth of strong bones and teeth, but a greater incidence of high blood pressure, diabetes, stress, etc. Not to mention the toll a poor diet takes on a child’s attention span.”

The USDA says that 23.5 million Americans in 6,500 urban and rural areas are food deserts, areas where there’s limited access to fresh, healthy and affordable food needed to maintain a good diet (but often served by fast-food restaurants and convenience stores.)

“These are generally areas where income is low,” said Phil Lempert with SupermarketGuru. “Higher-calorie foods are more affordable.”

In Peoria, underserved neighborhoods have median household incomes below the city’s $45,800 level, according to Census data. For example, Averyville’s is $29,900, Lincoln Park $21,500, Logan Park West $21,500, the Near Northside $22,900, and Olde Town North and Olde Town South are both $31,200.

Plus, although print and online directories of Peoria food market list some 60 retailers, they’re mostly ethnic or specialty market, convenience stores or gas stations, and the latter two stock mostly processed and non-perishable foods.

Peoria’s food deserts grew when Aldi closed its Western Avenue location last year, Moore says.

“Aldi was a place that provided many with a variety of quality food and staples,” she says. “Aldi was easily accessible to the bus lines and by foot. With many in the area not having a reliable means of transportation the need for locally accessible quality food is now much more desperate.”

The desperation includes concerns about economic development as well as health. After losing retailers, food deserts can discourage investment. Locating in such neighborhoods has risks, concedes Anne Palmer of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Health’s Food Communities and Public Health Program, because groceries have small profit margins and some well-meaning grocers may not have the experience or skills to operate outside traditional formats.

“One of the things I’ve come to appreciate is just how complicated this is,” she’s said. “Changing perceptions and attitudes is part of the equation of long-term behavior change [and] what works for some will not work for others.”

 

At another food “oasis,” Haddad’s Market in West Peoria, owner Mark Wrhel sees the community loyalty he exhibited by rebuilding after a devastating 2010 fire reciprocated by a faithful customer base.

“It’s the 51st year in this location, and we try to involve the whole community, which is super-supportive,” he says. “It’s a small-town feel.

“When we rebuilt, we expanded a few things – bottled water, a seating area and a ‘super-perishable’ side of the store, with meat, produce and a deli,” he says. “But big-box stores are challenging, so we try to make Haddad’s a destination. Everyone’s going to shop at two stores at least, and we want to be one of them. We know our customers and personalize our [inventory] with healthy options and deal with everyone’s busy schedules by having ready-to-eat salads in our deli and ready-to-cook meals in the meat department. We know our customers; that’s the best way to compete.”

Kroger’s Elliott agrees.

“Our ‘loyalty cards’ help us tailor our stores to our customers,” Elliott says. “We know what to stock.”

Elsewhere, Kroger has tried different-style stores such as its warehouse-style Ruler Foods, comparable to Aldi’s, in other Midwest markets, and its Food 4 Less outlets in Chicagoland. Also in Chicago, the upscale Whole Foods chain is launching a store in the Englewood neighborhood (median income $19,700).

In Philadelphia, Jeff Brown/s Super Stores company has 11 ShopRite locations in low-income areas and – after meeting with community leaders – they became profitable neighborhood hubs, with healthy foods plus features such as nutritionists, government-service referral desks, or health clinics. Brown’s said he’s considering opening a jazz club and beer garden in some stores.

Brown, who hires neighborhood residents for his union jobs, also has a non-profit spinoff, UpLiftsolutions.org, offering ideas to entrepreneurs looking at food deserts as opportunities, not problems.

Among various ideas is the role of elected officials, Moore says.

“City government can and must play a part,” she says. “Areas hardest hit by the economy and governmental neglect will need the support of the entire Peoria community. It will be the collaboration of free enterprise and the support of all citizens to direct city spending that will help turn the tide.”

 

Bill Knight



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