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Vol 19 No. 2
April 2008

Cities Study Dearth of Healthy Food

By Chris Kenning and Jessie Halladay

In some urban areas, it’s easier to buy a Twinkie than a stalk of broccoli.

Large cities such as Philadelphia, New Orleans and Chicago, as well as smaller ones such as Louisville and Troy, N.Y., are studying and trying to address the issue of grocery gaps -- -- the lack of full-service supermarkets in lower-income neighborhoods.

There is a growing interest across the nation in researching and addressing those disparities, said Ana Diez-Roux, a researcher at the University of Michigan School of Public Health.

Mari Gallagher, a Chicago-based researcher whose firm has studied the issue in cities including Detroit, Chicago and, most recently, Louisville, says the lack of supermarkets with fresh fruits and vegetables, when combined with low car ownership and an abundance of fast-food and higher-priced convenience stores can nurture poor eating habits.

“It’s very difficult for people to change their behaviors if they don’t have an environment in which to make that change,” Diez-Roux said.

Louisville is one of many cities wrestling with the problem.

“The city has tried to lure grocers to poor neighborhoods, with limited success,” said Bruce Traughber, the city’s director of economic development.

Louisville retiree Jessie Caldwell often has to make an hour-long bus trip to pick up fresh vegetables or meat. She buys only what she can carry.

Though she tries to eat healthy, she said for her and many others, it’s often tempting to go to a more convenient mini-market or grab some fast food. “The corner stores just sell a lot of potato chips, pop and ice cream,” she said. “But people are going to eat what’s available.”

Responding to a November study, Louisville established a food-security task force of members of the Louisville Metro Health Department, food-justice advocacy groups and the city’s development staff. Its mission is to look for ways to close the gap with strategies including farmers markets, incentives for small stores to carry fresh produce and increased education about nutrition.

“There’s a lack of equal access to healthy, wholesome, affordable food in a significant sector of the community,” said Adewale Troutman, director of the Louisville Health Department. “It’s a major concern.”

Across the nation, cities have taken various steps:

Philadelphia: The statewide Fresh Food Financing Initiative has pumped nearly $22 million in grants and loans into 27 projects over the past four years, including new supermarkets in poor urban areas and refrigerators for corner stores to carry more fresh fruits and vegetables, according to David Adler, spokesman for The Food Trust, one of the partners in the city’s private-public initiative.

New Orleans: A coalition is working to expand markets in poor areas such as the Lower 9th Ward after Hurricane Katrina reduced markets citywide from 36 to 15, said Dee Bowling at the Prevention Research Center at Tulane University.

Troy, N.Y.: A mobile market funded by a $500,000 state health department grant began last April. It delivers food ranging from herbs to fruits and vegetables to residents who lack nearby supermarkets, according to the Capital District Gardens, which runs the program.

Researchers at Penn State University have begun a project that is trying to determine whether or not putting a grocery in a low-income area of Philadelphia improves the health situation of that community. Researchers asked families about their shopping habits and plan to return once the store is completed within the next year to see how their habits change.

“Residents have a huge investment. They really want to see this happen,” researcher Stephen Matthews said.

More supermarket chains nationwide are exploring urban areas for new stores, said Todd Turner, vice president for urban affairs at Washington’s Food Marketing Institute, which represents 1,500 grocers and food retailers.

Better access close to home is something Louisville resident Shalonda Philpot, who doesn’t have a car, said she hopes will happen. Struggling with diabetes and a host of health problems, she says it’s a major effort to buy fresh food for her four children.

“You’ve got a lot of liquor stores,” she said, “but you don’t have groceries.”