D.C.’s ‘food deserts’ sprout fresh fruits and vegetables

September 29, 2011

In a Brookland convenience store loaded with beer, wine and prepackaged pastries, Aneika Muhammad slides a heaping bowl of fresh, foot-long carrots onto a refrigerator shelf.

It’s part of a new program by D.C. Central Kitchen to get fresh produce — and in some cases, refrigeration units — into “food deserts” around the District.

Muhammad, retail program consultant for the Healthy Corners program, and her colleagues will make deliveries to neighborhoods with limited access to fresh vegetables, fruits and dairy products. Their first stop this week was a delivery to Neighborhood Market, a mid-size convenience store on Rhode Island Avenue.

“They have elders in the community, and mothers. They can’t get to the store, so we make sure their corner store has at least a few items they can make a meal with,” Muhammad said.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has designated the area near the market a food desert: a low-income community at least one mile away from a large grocery store.

Michele Ver Ploeg, an economist at the USDA, developed a national food desert map using census data and grocery store locations. The District has seven food deserts, in Wards 5, 7 and 8.

Neighborhoods that are low-income with limited access to fresh food may have small convenience stores, but those cannot sustain a healthy community, Ver Ploeg said. “It definitely does get people options,” she said of the small neighborhood stores. “But it’s not a supermarket, so it’s not a full range.”

Through a grant from the D.C. Department of Small and Local Business Development, small businesses in food deserts can apply for as much as $1,500 for refrigerators, shelving and other equipment to display and sell fresh produce.

So far, 21 stores have applied to the Healthy Corners program, which D.C. Central Kitchen is operating with DC Hunger Solutions and the city’s Department of Health. The stores will receive food and equipment deliveries within the next few weeks, Muhammad said.

When D.C. Central Kitchen’s staff arrived Monday, store owner Stella Kim had produce for sale. She bought potatoes, onions and bananas from an Asian supermarket near her home in Ellicott City.

“Potatoes are a popular vegetable for everyone,” Kim said. “And bananas are easy. People can just pick them up,” she said.

Produce sales have been slow, however. “After they bring the freezer there, maybe it’ll pick up,” Kim said.

On a plastic crate between shelves of wine and refrigerated mixers, two small wooden bowls held the fist-size potatoes and onions selling for less than 50 cents each.

“I’m gonna replace all the old ones with a fresh batch,” said Bo Sims, who drives a truck for D.C. Central Kitchen.

“We don’t believe in throwing away, especially food like this that’s good. But as far as selling it, that’s a different story,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to go in a store to get something that looks like it’s on the way out.”

Sims and his team make one or two deliveries to different stores each day, but they hope to increase that number as purchasing increases.

“People don’t know yet. As of this order, it’s slow,” Sims said. “Once everybody knows, we’ll probably be making two, three deliveries a week to these different stores, which will be good for everybody in the neighborhood.”

Similar programs have sprung up around the country, including one in Baltimore. In 2008, researchers at Johns Hopkins University placed fruits and vegetables in needy communities and soon saw that the increased availability of healthy food options translated into increased sales and better diets among consumers, said Joel Gittelsohn, leader of the Baltimore Healthy Stores project and a professor at Johns Hopkins. And just last week the Treasury Department awarded $25 million in grants to a dozen groups focused on developing ways to alleviate food deserts around the country.

Residents’ health was “significantly better” after the start of the program, he said.

But Muhammad pointed out that change takes time. Residents unaccustomed to buying such items may not start grabbing them up right away. That could pose financial problems for some convenience-store owners. They should expect some losses in the beginning, she said.

Kim repurposed some refrigerated space in the Neighborhood Market.

“She made a sacrifice. She moved her wine to the side so she could refrigerate the [produce] items. Some of the stores are not willing to do that,” Muhammad said.

Access to healthier foods may not be enough, however. A 2011 study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that improving health requires changes in dietary behavior.

Joelle Johnson, program manager for Healthy Corners, said that is why they plan to deliver free recipe cards along with their regular produce in a few weeks, so that shoppers can use the produce creatively.

“We’re looking at doing a holiday recipe card [and] coming up with some recipes utilizing ingredients that we’re providing the stores with,” she said. “Like healthier mashed potatoes, or something with peppers and onions.”

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