Food Deserts


Asian Shopkeepers And The Economics Of Improving Corner Stores

A D.C. shopkeeper poses by his "Healthy Corners" stand. D.C. Central Kitchen's program delivers fresh produce to corner stores.

The fallout continues over comments Councilman Marion Barry made about Asian-owned stores in Ward 8, calling them “dirty shops.” Barry has since issued an apology, but a coalition of local and national Asian American groups have called for more meaningful engagement.

Part of Barry’s follow-up comments focused on the unhealthy foods such stores sell, and he called for the owners to sell healthier foods and fix up their stores.

Gary Cha, owner of Yes! Organic Market and former president of the Korean American Grocers Association, appeared on Monday’s The Kojo Nnamdi Show to discuss Barry’s comments and relations between black and Asian communities in D.C.

Cha spoke with DCentric after the show and reiterated that a common perception of store owners among customers is that whatever goes into the register is profit. But many take home only 6 to 7 percent of sales, Cha said. If a store makes $1 million a year, the owners take away about $60,000 for their families.

“These are people who are barely getting by. I know several of them that to make ends meet, they don’t even have health insurance,” Cha said. “So when we ask them to renovate and do this and that, they probably don’t have the financial ability to do that.”

Stocking up with healthier foods, particularly fresh produce, does require investment by store owners.  Refrigeration units are needed, which can be costly and difficult to accommodate in small stores. Also, small stores may not qualify for wholesale produce prices.

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Marion Barry: Breaking Down Race, Plexiglass And ‘Dirty Shops’

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Ward 8 Councilman Marion Barry

Councilman Marion Barry’s criticisms of Asian-owned stores in Ward 8 set off a whirlwind of criticism and debate Thursday. Here’s the rundown: Barry made some offhanded remarks after he won the contested Ward 8 council seat race, captured by NBC4 Washington: “We’ve got to do something about these Asians coming in, opening up businesses, those dirty shops. They ought to go, I’ll just say that right now, you know. But we need African-American businesspeople to be able to take their places, too.”

On Thursday, Barry’s Twitter account clarified his criticism, aiming it at carry-out joints that sell greasy food and put up plexiglass barriers between customers and employees. And many of such restaurants, he said, are owned by Asians. Barry faced criticism throughout Thursday, including denunciations from Councilman Tommy Wells (Ward 6), Council Chair Kwame Brown and Mayor Vincent Gray. Barry eventually apologized for offending the Asian American community. Barry said he intended to criticize some, not all, Asian-owned businesses, but he remained staunch in his view that Ward 8 deserves better food options and less plexiglass.

Part of Barry’s scourge centers on the feeling that predominately black Ward 8 is often disrespected, and that feeling is at the heart of many issues east of the Anacostia River. By bringing race into the mix, Barry touched upon a history of animosity. In many cities, some view Asian grocers and liquor store owners in predominately black communities as profiting off of customers while not treating them with respect.

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On Blaming Food Deserts

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We pondered yesterday whether lack of access to supermarkets is the major reason behind health inequality, in response to a survey showing most urban families were actually satisfied with their grocery options.

We asked readers: are food deserts really to blame, or do other factors loom larger? From the responses, it looks like prices and having time to prepare meals were also big concerns for families.

DCentric commenter molly_w wrote:

One thing I completely failed to appreciate until I became a mom was how hard it is for parents to find time to cook. I get home at 6, and my 4-year-old daughter needs to head upstairs and start her bedtime routine at 7:30. So I have 90 minutes a day to hang out with my child (never mind my husband), and I want to spend as little of it as possible fixing supper. (She doesn’t want me to spend it in the kitchen, either; she interrupts me every couple minutes with all sorts of invented needs — which only makes dinner prep take longer.) These days I’m all about frozen microwavable rice covered in something that came out of a crock pot, because I can get food on the table in about five minutes and have that time to hang out with my family. And I’m lucky in a lot of ways — I only work one job, I have a partner to help, we only have one kid.

In response to our post on the survey, Sylvia C. Brown, an ANC 7C04 commissioner, tweeted that saving money can come at the cost of saving time:

@ it still corroborates food deserts bcs it puts pressure on one--go to corner store save time but food price high +
Sylvia C. Brown

Corner stores also don’t have the same variety of fresh fruits and vegetables as supermarkets do. There’s a local effort underway to address that problem, with nonprofit D.C. Central Kitchen delivering fresh produce to corner stores as part of its “Healthy Corners” initiative.

Also, simply having a supermarket in a community doesn’t translate into healthier eating habits, according to a study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine. Researchers said healthy food isn’t always visibly displayed in supermarkets and it can be expensive. So you could build it, and they may come, but what will they buy?

‘If I Was A Poor Black Kid:’ Not That Simple

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“If I was a poor black kid,” technology writer Gene Marks writes on Forbes’ website, “I would first and most importantly work to make sure I got the best grades possible.”

So goes the line of thinking in a post entitled “If I Was A Poor Black Kid,” an attempt at helping solve poverty among low-income, black children. Marks writes that what’s most lacking is personal motivation, since opportunities do exist for children from disadvantaged backgrounds, such as scholarships and free or low-cost technological tools. Marks uses Philadelphia as an example and writes that inequality isn’t the nation’s biggest problem, “it’s ignorance:”

So many kids from West Philadelphia don’t even know these opportunities exist for them.  Many come from single-parent families whose mom or dad (or in many cases their grand mom) is working two jobs to survive and are just (understandably) too plain tired to do anything else in the few short hours they’re home.  Many have teachers who are overburdened and too stressed to find the time to help every kid that needs it.  Many of these kids don’t have the brains to figure this out themselves – like my kids.  Except that my kids are just lucky enough to have parents and a well-funded school system around to push them in the right direction.

Technology can help these kids.  But only if the kids want to be helped.  Yes, there is much inequality.  But the opportunity is still there in this country for those that are smart enough to go for it.

Personal motivation will always play a role in individual success. But assuming that children need to simply be “smart enough” to go after available opportunities glosses over a complicated picture. Children don’t operate independently of the environment or adults around them.

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D.C. Aldi Doesn’t Accept WIC

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The new Aldi grocery store that opened last week in Northeast D.C. has been touted as a boost for nearby low-income residents since the discount grocer is known for its low prices. But the store doesn’t accept governmental assistance payments such as the Women, Children and Infants (WIC) program, which provides low-income families with subsides to purchase groceries. The chain does, however, accept Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards.

“We have explored ways for the Women Infants and Children (WIC) program to work within our operational structure,” Spokeswoman Amy Nadler emailed this statement to DCentric. “However, since the majority of our grocery products are under our own ALDI exclusive brands and are not national brands, unfortunately, we simply don’t qualify within the program’s current guidelines.  Therefore, we cannot accept WIC.”

So even though Aldi does have low prices, the pricier Safeway nearby may be the only option for those on WIC.

This post has been updated to include information about Aldi accepting EBT cards.

Seven Food Desert Myths

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In its efforts to combat disproportionately high obesity rates and poor health in low-income communities, the Obama administration has turned its focus to food deserts, defined as low-income communities lacking supermarkets or large grocery stores.

The idea is simple: if you don’t have cheap, nutritious food around, you’ll see health problems in your community. Hence the emphasis on bringing more supermarkets into neighborhoods. But improving a community’s health is more complicated than that, as other factors influence people’s health. Here are seven myths surrounding food deserts:

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Can Moving to a Middle Class Neighborhood Make You Healthier?

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It’s well documented that poverty and bad health have a strong connection. A team of researchers wondered if simply moving from a low income to middle class neighborhood could make a person healthier.

Turns out that it does, according to a new study published in the New England Journal of Medicine does. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development researchers studied three groups. One group stayed in poor neighborhoods. Another group received rent subsidies to move into middle class neighborhoods. The third group received the same subsidies to help with rent, but remained in poor neighborhoods. The results: the group who moved to the middle class neighborhood were 5 percent less likely to be obese and show signs of diabetes. The people who stayed in the poor neighborhoods, even with the help of extra money, experienced no improvement in health.

From ScienceNOW:

The experiment clearly shows that the neighborhood effect is real, says Nicholas Christakis, a sociologist at Harvard Medical School in Boston who studies the effect of social ties on health, but the mechanisms remain murky. Is it the shops and restaurants, the parks and pools, he wonders, “or the people in a neighborhood that affect you most?” For example, Christakis says, the people who moved might have lost weight because safer streets and open spaces “allowed them to walk outside more, or because they saw thinner people around them, or both.”

Even if a neighborhood has plenty of recreational facilities and opportunities, it doesn’t mean people will take advantage of them. Research shows the fear of violence discourages people from being active outside. People are less likely to walk, bike or let their kids play outside. That rings true in D.C., where Ward 8, the ward with the most violent crime thus far this year, also has the lowest physical activity rate. We may have plenty of food deserts, but we also have our fair share of exercise deserts.

Fast Food and Food Deserts

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This Burger King hamburger has 1,010 calories and the fries have 500 calories.

Many of the tactics cited to fight food deserts focuses on encouraging supermarkets to open in neighborhoods where there aren’t many. But a new study shows that simply bringing in a grocer doesn’t translate into healthier eating habits.

The Archives of Internal Medicine published the study, which shows that having more grocery stores in neighborhoods didn’t have much of an impact on how many fruits and vegetables people ate. The study does, however, find another link between income and fast food, reports Reuters Health:
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The Search for Produce in LeDroit Park

Last week’s Metro Connection featured a mobile market that will drive to D.C.’s food deserts and sell produce at reduced rates.

Arcadia Foods [is] a small organization that works to bring fresh produce from fields of local farms to the dinner plates of D.C. residents. The founder, Mike Babin, now has his sights set on the food deserts of D.C. by putting farmers’ markets like this one on wheels.

“We’ve got a bus and we’re calling it a mobile market that is going to be outfitted as a farmer’s market. It’s going to roll into these communities and set up shop for one day a week to just provide that food to those communities,” [Mike Babin says].

Flickr: Lisa Williams

Finding fresh and affordable produce can be a challenge in some D.C. neighborhoods.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines food deserts as areas with poor access to large grocery stories — and D.C. has plenty of neighborhoods that qualify. The food desert definition doesn’t take into account whether neighborhoods without chain grocers have corner stores selling produce or farmers markets.

Some LeDroit Park residents have pointed out on the neighborhood’s Listserv that although the area lacks a big grocery store, there are a couple of neighborhood options, including Common Good City Farm and farmers markets and corner stores. Some alternatives to chain grocers may not be as affordable, but that’s not always the case.

Babin’s plans may provide a temporary fix to food deserts, but as reporter Marc Adams points out, getting people to actually buy the produce takes more than just bringing the food into neighborhoods. LeDroit Park resident Jana Baldwin, who uses food stamps, tells Adams that “many communities may feel that [the mobile vendor's produce] is only for a specific population and so it would have to definitely be marketed in a way that was inclusive to all communities.”

Addressing Food Deserts Without Chain Stores

Flickr: Marie In Shaw

Formerly known as Timor Bodega, Field to City market in Bloomingdale offers organic produce, dairy and meat.

Community-owned assets, not big-box stores, will solve the ‘food desert’ problem” according to Grist, an environmental blog.

A USDA report [PDF] to Congress in 2009 suggested that the average food in such big-box grocery stores (as Safeway, Alberston’s, Winn-Dixie, or Walmart) is priced 10 percent lower than its counterparts in independently owned corner stores, roadside stands, or farmers markets. What’s more, the USDA claimed that “full service” big-box stores offer more affordable access to food diversity than do other venues…

The fatal flaw of the Obama strategy to reduce hunger, food insecurity, and obesity in America is that it risks bringing more big-box stores both to poor urban neighborhoods and to rural communities. It categorically ignores the fact that independently owned groceries, corner markets in ethnic neighborhoods, farmers markets, CSAs, and roadside stands are the real sources of affordable food diversity in America. But in its 2009 report to Congress, the USDA conceded that “a complete assessment of these diverse food environments would be such an enormous task” that it decided not to survey independently owned food purveyors. Therefore, it decided to ignore their beneficial roles and focus on the grocery-store chains that now capture three-quarters of all current foods sales in the U.S.

In today’s Washington Post, food writer Tim Carman notes that an innovative concept is coming to D.C.’s food deserts: a mobile farmers market, housed in a converted bus. According to its successful Kickstarter fundraising page, the Arcadia Mobile Market could be “the most visible and direct way to navigate a number of urban spaces to get much-needed fresh food to people in the nation’s capital.”