Monday, August 19, 2013

The Fading Of Food Access In The Suburbs

I read recently that, according the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) approximately twenty-nine million Americans live in urban and rural food deserts.

That definition means that Lexington residents from low-income neighborhoods have to travel a mile or more to a grocery store. With poverty levels being demonstrated to be growing in suburbs across the country, it could only be a short time until those food deserts become extremely evident here. From what I hear, our planning staff believes that it has already started.

It has long been known that the near north side of Lexington has been home to an almost ever present community of working class poor. There are pockets of more well to do neighborhoods but they are the exception. Many streets which once saw the fine houses of our city's doctors and lawyers or other entrepreneurs are now home to the apartment dwelling, lower class. Our ever mobile elite moved on to the newer subdivisions, chasing that American dream of living “in the country”or acting like it.

Today it is the pockets of poverty which seem to be growing in our cul-de-sac patchwork of subdivisions that we have developed over the last half century or more. Many of them began as “starter homes” under HUD's “236” or “238” programs and actually did allow young families to enter the housing market and become upwardly mobile. Lately, the newer, non programed, version of starter houses appear to be financial traps for new home owners. Their upward mobility is still stuck in the '70s.

Stories abound from some of the better known low income districts of larger cities, where food banks and food pantries see more and more of the newly impoverished. There are more than likely as many right here in Lexington and maybe you know of one or more. Retelling of stories and raising awareness is not a solution, changing what brings on or exacerbates the situation is.

I have long stated that “retail follows the population” and, up until the 1930s and a wide acceptance of zoning, the food market section of retail led in that regard. One of the initial retail establishments in any new residential area was a grocer or butcher. That is why we saw so many corner markets in neighborhoods and often in converted residences.

A while, I chronicled the actions of a retail business in a small part of a narrow wedge of Lexington. It was not complete by any means, but does illustrate what I believe to be a part of our problem. As I pointed out, Kroger Co entered the Lexington market with two stores in 1925, going up against a few local chains like S.A Glass and his 6 or so stores. Kroger had 60 such corner markets in Cincinnati at the time and there was no such thing as a “super market”

Zoning is usually employed to separate noxious uses from neighborhood or other community institutions. The corner grocery, church or barbershop beside a small drug store were the mainstays of neighborhood life, hardly uses that folks wanted to get rid of. To many, that was the embodiment of the small town life they left behind when they moved to town. Sadly, the regimented nature of zoning does not allow the time tested evolution of human interaction having replaced it with something I find hard to explain.

Grocery stores of today are required to fit into a specific “zone” and since those zones will also allow many more uses, some of them noxious, they need to be sited away from the residences that they have historically served. This, I believe, is what has opened the door for food deserts.

One of my favorite scenes from Driving Miss Daisy is where Daisy Werthan's son has hired a chauffeur since she had wrecked her car. Ever the independent woman, Daisy intends to do the weekly shopping alone until she discovers that you need to arrange a cab well in advance and walking to the store or using the streetcar have their own problems. Daisy is a well of widow living in a changing world and yet blind to those changes.

The Driving Miss Daisy story began in the late '40s when going to the grocery, though a special trip, did not involve a large amount of logistics. Store locations at that time were determined by residential units / population in a mile or two radius and the store management knew customer's families by name as well as what they bought. The grocery business in those days was a real service oriented industry, much unlike today.

A grocery superstore of 85, 000 to 200,000 square feet will require the population of 3 to 5 mile radius to make it profitable. In subdivisions containing massive numbers of cul-de-sacs the driving distance could easily be three times that. When neighborhoods like that begin to fall the poverty line our food deserts begin to emerge. Factor in the lack of adequate public transportation and the effect of the food desert grows. It begins to look like we either failed to plan or planned to fail, but we did it to ourselves.

Much of my observations and opinions here have come from growing up in a grocery oriented family. My father was a well known and respected grocery manager/owner during the '40s-'70s. Corporate marketing decisions have replaced the hands-on customer service actions of the old time grocery man and convinced the buying public that it is in their best interest. It is no longer about what is best for the customer but what is best for the corporate bottom line.

In an industry that made more than $600 billion in 2012, the corporate perception is that low-income people don't spend money unless they're at a high enough density, then there's a market. Our easily identified food deserts in the near north side do not approach that density. The National Campaign for Healthy Food Access at The Food Trust says supermarkets stay away because urban settings force them to rethink the shape and size of their stores. I think that we are seeing that with the Kroger on Euclid, but under duress. Operating in low-income areas, the employees who tend to live very nearby are less work-ready and may cost more to train and insure.
On the local front, we have our own group which is active in bringing better food choices to the low income areas. It will also involve teaching the residents of these areas how to make the better choices. Anita Courtney of the Tweens Nutrition and Fitness Coalition has initiated a program which has seen some success in other communities. Here it goes by the name The Good Neighbor Store (GNS) Network. They have realized that small neighborhood stores play an important role in communities and if stores can enhance their business model, it’s good for the community, as well as the store’s bottom line.

Currently there are 2 stores working to become Good Neighbor Stores, all in the East End of Lexington. They are hoping to have grand re-openings this fall:
  • Sammy’s Market and Deli at 651 Breckinridge Street on the corner of Breckenridge and Sixth Street
  • Pak-N-Save at 503 East Third Street on the corner of Third and Race
The Pak-N-Save will have a new produce cooler, new flooring and new exterior paint and a mural is to be painted on the Race Street side of the store. There are ongoing efforts to engage other inner city corner stores.
It is not all about teaching the inner city youth and their parents. Since we are seeing food deserts develop in our suburban areas also, we need to spread the awareness there. Mrs. Sweeper has related to me an incident which played out before her and to which she could not keep herself apart from. I will let her tell the story,
I came up to the registers and began to stand in line at the Kroger on Richmond Road. “I had a small hand basket of goods.  I believe it was a Friday that I had to work and I was picking up a couple of things for the weekend.  In front of me was a black woman dressed conservatively and wearing a beautiful headscarf in the style that Sephardi women often wear them. (And I myself have done on more than one occasion.) That was what drew my attention at first.

Then I noticed she was in distress, nearly in tears and trying to say something to the cashier. Her English was very poor, she was clearly a recent immigrant. The cashier was not really interested in listening to this woman, she was instead waving a loaf of quality (possibly organic) whole grain bread. The rest of the woman's cart was filled with fresh vegetables and fruits, organic dairy products, and other healthy items – things I buy for my own family on a regular basis.

There was not a single item of junk food in her cart, not a bit of unhealthy processed food. I was almost ashamed of how often we cheat on our “healthy” diet looking at her cart.

The cashier was waving the bread at her and gestured to the healthy organic dairy products and a few other good quality products saying, loudly and rudely, “You can't buy these.”

It took me a few seconds to realize the problem – the woman was using a SNAP card (the program most of us know as food stamps). The card would not take the healthy products. The cashier was telling the woman she would have to pay for the healthy items out of pocket. Total amount was approximately $30.

The woman was scrounging around in her purse at this point, understanding what, if not why.  She said she had no more money. The cashier told her she would take the things off her ticket.

I said, “No, you won't,” or something like that. At this point I was angry, suddenly understanding that this woman's purchase was being rejected because it wasn't crappy low quality food – you know, the stuff they're always griping that poor people buy that makes their kids fat? Well, that stuff is accepted by SNAP. Decent hormone-free chemical-free items aren't, apparently.

The cashier turned to me and said, “She will have to put these back.” And I said again, “No, she won't,” and I reached over with my own credit union debit card and swiped it through the machine before the cashier could complete the action of picking up her hand-scanner to remove the items. As I was putting in my pin number, the cashier said to me in a nasty tone of voice, “you can't do that,”

By now I was pretty much in a spitting rage, but I didn't want to make a scene or embarrass the immigrant woman any further than she very clearly already was, so all I replied was something like “Yes I can, and I did. Give the woman her receipt.” At a loss as to what to do about it, the cashier did as I told her.

She then rang up my few items with me glaring at her. She didn't speak to me again. That's probably a good thing, because I am a bit high-strung by nature and it's hard to say what would have come out of my mouth. It's not the cashier's fault the system is set up to benefit corporations who make sure their processed products are on SNAP's accepted product list. I'm sure plenty of money changes hands to make sure that happens.

I imagine it is also likely that the SNAP administrators put some sort of cap on product prices to make sure that quality products don't qualify. After all, apparently, the poor don't deserve organic, hormone-free, chemical free products.

For some reason, we'd rather pay higher prices for obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, and other costs conveniently covered by Medicaid but entirely preventable through eating healthy food instead of the processed crap being foisted off on the poor by SNAP.

As I have said, I am the son of a grocery man. He saw his job as providing the best product for the best price and doing it as a service to his fellow man. I cannot see this ever happening in his store.


Danielle said...

What a telling story of not only the type of character our society is building, but also the type of person our government is trying to create. Truly sad.

Would you mind if I repost your story on my blog? Giving you proper credit, or course. Thanks.

cattfrancisco said...

I used to live on North Hanover Avenue, and was a regular patron of the corner store, Wilson's Grocery. It used to be a great little grocery store - you could get sandwiches and they had a small selection of good quality meat products. Now I live on the South end of town and have to drive to a grocery store - there are no neighborhood groceries here. What little savings I may get shopping at a large chain store are eaten up by the gas money I have to use to get there, plus I don't get the personal attention I was able to get at Wilsons. I really miss that corner store . . .

donpratt said...

This is not only a statement of an event, this SHOULD be a rallying cry to change things NOW!
Have you checked with the media if they may have an interest in looking at this issue!
Corporate only products?
I would gladly help fight for healthier food access/locally grown production available/???
Most likely, the food stamp program was supported by CONGRESS as a means of increase food sales for greedy corporate food industrialists, NOT REALLY A MAJOR CONCERN for the needy!
But as a long time former grocer, an advocate for/merchant of whole/healthy foods and the man co managers of Good Foods Coops organizers asked to take over when they left Lexington, I want to get MANY off junk food (including myself more!)
Don't hesitate to call!

donpratt said...

There are many sad truths about the rise and fall of small groceries in local communities, too, that should be told.
Too often, in Lexington, stores were used as a means to citizenship by a foreign group allowing some to "buy" a means of residence long enough to get citizenship.

I don't know the ins and outs but as a grocery I saw the resulting criminal behavior that victimized citizens in many lower income neighborhoods and abuse food programs.
Almost a modified "mafia" operation that has me suspicious of too many and too much even now.
Trouble is, I also saw the rise of fast marts and mini groceries in drug stores that used computers to raise prices tactically and sell at high profit.
Of course, they often used the "sale" items to bring in like super markets.
The rise in the price often was large enough to sell a few less of items and yet MAKE MORE MONEY.
Obviously, not concern for the consumer.

Lexington Streetsweeper said...

Danielle, I have no problem with you re-posting this at all.

Wilson's is still there and and doing the same for those folks that they used to do for you and me.

Don, many times a small store was the way to citizenship for some of Americas top retailers. The criminal activity is another symptom of the greed which is prevalent in today's merchandizing world. Today's store employee does not know how to sell. They take money, bag the purchases and wait until the machine tells them whether or not to return change.