Planting fresh produce in D.C.’s ‘food deserts’


Jimmy Singleton, co-owner of Marbury Market which is part of DC Central Kitchen's Healthy Corners project, to bring healthy food to bodegas in food deserts in Washington, DC. (Jeffrey MacMillan/JEFFREY MACMILLAN)
June 19, 2012

To reach Jimmy Singleton’s “corner store” at the Marbury Plaza Apartments in Ward 7, residents must take the elevator down to the basement and navigate a series of barren, unmarked hallways until they find a nondescript doorway that leads to Marbury Market. For the hundreds of residents here, this is their nearest grocery store.

The co-owner learned the dangers of trying to survive on the market’s junk food-heavy stock — chips, sodas, candy bars, sticky buns and the like. Not long after he bought the store in 2005, Singleton turned it into his primary feeding trough.

“In a year’s time, I had gained about 75 pounds,” he says. “I got so big, customers started talking about me.”

He decided he needed to silence them; he made a New Year’s resolution to lose the pounds — by not eating at his market and to start cooking at home. “The weight,” he says, “was just coming off.”

If Singleton, 45, learned the importance of home cooking — and avoiding junk food — he couldn’t exactly translate those lessons into a business plan that made sense for Marbury Market. He had tried to sneak in healthier drinks — fruits juices and smoothies — and discovered his customers preferred their carbonated sodas with high-fructose corn syrup.

But the owner’s weight-loss story made him open to a surprise offer that came his way last year: D.C. Central Kitchen, the nonprofit dedicated to feeding and training unemployed and at-risk Washingtonians, asked Singleton to join a pilot program to introduce fresh produce to corner markets in the District’s so-called “food deserts.” The program is part of a growing national effort to increase access to healthy food. In Philadelphia, for instance, a federally funded program is placing fresh food in hundreds of corner stores in low-income neighborhoods with high obesity rates.

Central Kitchen’s “Healthy Corners” program launched in September 2011, with about 30 stores taking part, each located in a low-income neighborhood that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has designated a food desert, because at least a third of its residents live more than a mile away from a large grocery store. Healthy Corners was designed to overcome at least two major obstacles that keep fresh produce out of bodegas: Retailers think the fruits and vegetables are too expensive and too hard to sell, and distributors don’t see the value of delivering small orders to these tiny neighborhood stores.

Michael F. Curtin Jr., chief executive of D.C. Central Kitchen, calls it a “vicious cycle” that has kept poor neighborhoods hooked on empty calories, a reminder that food security is not just about access to food — but access to good food. With initial funding from the D.C. Department of Small and Local Business Development, Healthy Corners was able not only to supply corner stores with modest refrigeration units, but also to serve as a small-scale distributor, buying produce in bulk and then breaking the fruits and veggies into small orders for delivery.

But more important, Curtin says, Healthy Corners has eased these small retailers into the program by subsidizing the produce for several months before charging full wholesale prices. The slow phase-in period allows store owners to figure out what their customers want, so that when D.C. Central Kitchen starts charging full price, retailers can cater their weekly orders to match consumer demand. This, in part, explains why 27 of the original 30 pilot stores continue to take part in Healthy Corners.

“That’s pretty amazing,” Curtin says. “Internally, we thought we might lose half, and let’s put it this way, I would not have been surprised if we lost half” when D.C. Central Kitchen started charging full price.

Despite the healthy retention rate with retailers, Healthy Corners is a small program battling deeply entrenched eating habits. Many markets place orders so small — such as five apples, 10 potatoes or five white onions, etc., a week — that it would make traditional produce wholesalers laugh. But, as Curtin points out, those are not the numbers to focus on. The more important figures are the ones that show slow, gradual growth in sales at the majority of Healthy Corner stores.

“The sales numbers have gone up consistently every month. . . . That is, for me, the key piece: that we’re seeing this growth,” Curtin says. “People are becoming aware that they can get these kinds of products at their local stores, and they’re relying on it.”

Over at Marbury Market, Singleton talks glowingly of Healthy Corners while speaking honestly about the realities of his subterranean store. Yes, some customers have learned to buy an apple over, say, a bag of chips. And, yes, his orders have increased by more than 100 percent since last fall, to the point where Joelle Johnson, local initiatives and procurement coordinator for D.C. Central Kitchen, calls Marbury Market “one of our better stores.”

But Singleton isn’t about to turn his store into Whole Foods; his market’s biggest sellers, he says, remain candy and fruit-flavored cigarillos. “That’s the only fruit they’re consuming,” Singleton says with a resigned laugh.

Because efforts here and nationwide are still new, it remains to be seen whether creating access to healthier food will actually change people’s habits; some recent studies have suggested it won’t. But many see it as a step in the right direction.

Singleton says that while some customers may ignore the small stashes of produce and trail mix — not to mention the Healthy Corner signage that explains the caloric difference between a sticky bun and a banana — others have embraced Marbury’s fresh approach. Sometimes, they’re shoppers who previously avoided the market.

“Some refused to come here because we didn’t have anything nutritious. . . . The temptation was too great,” Singleton says. “These people have started to come down, which is great for us.”

Tim Carman serves as the full-time writer for the Post's Food section and as the $20 Diner for the Weekend section, a double duty that requires ingesting more calories than a draft horse.
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