In Cities, Healthful Living Through Fresher Shopping

Selecting potatoes in the well-stocked produce section of a ShopRite in Philadelphia's southwest are, from left, Sharita, Geraldine and Shantay Henderson.
Selecting potatoes in the well-stocked produce section of a ShopRite in Philadelphia's southwest are, from left, Sharita, Geraldine and Shantay Henderson. (By Marvin Joseph -- The Washington Post)
By Amy Goldstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 15, 2006

PHILADELPHIA -- When Larry Lawrence drops into ShopRite, he steers his shopping cart to the towering mounds of produce. "It is like I am being drawn," he said, "by the peaches and the plums and the bananas."

Lawrence, 57, has been eating more fruits and vegetables, and fresh fish, too, since the sprawling store opened five blocks from his house in Eastwick, an industrial swath of southwest Philadelphia that was chosen in the 1950s as the nation's largest urban renewal project. Now, Eastwick is one of the first sites of a new strategy for social change: a government campaign to bring supermarkets stocked with healthful food into neglected inner-city neighborhoods to improve public health.

The Pennsylvania Fresh Food Financing Initiative, leveraging $30 million in state money with $90 million in private funds, is the most ambitious of a spate of state and local projects around the country. They represent a different model for public nutrition programs, which have relied since the 1960s on federal subsidies, such as food stamps and WIC.

Healthful food is scarce in many inner-city neighborhoods, where much of the food comes from corner markets and greasy takeout places. Instead of subsidizing shoppers, the projects shift the emphasis to the private sector, offering coaching and financial inducements for grocers to go into areas they shunned for decades.

These initiatives grow out of new research exploring the relationship among proximity to fresh food, the nation's obesity epidemic and diseases such as diabetes that are affected by diet. "We tried to make the connection between grocery stores and public health," said R. Duane Perry, executive director of the Food Trust, a nonprofit group that, in a pioneering 2002 study, produced maps showing that low-income neighborhoods of Philadelphia with few or no supermarkets had high death rates from diet-related diseases.

A study in Chicago, released three months ago, measured the distance from every city block to the nearest grocery store and fast-food restaurant. It found that people in what it called Chicago's "food deserts" died early in greater numbers and had more diabetes, obesity and high blood pressure.

Such public health discoveries -- combined with an older view of supermarkets as tools of economic development -- have been spurring new policies around the country.

In the District, a mayor's commission on nutrition in July issued a study by a nonprofit group, D.C. Hunger Solutions, showing that obesity is highest in the city's two wards east of the Anacostia River, where poverty is greatest and access to grocery stores is worst. The D.C. government has worked to attract a Giant supermarket that opened last year in Columbia Heights and one being built in Congress Heights, but those efforts began years ago more out of a desire to revitalize the neighborhoods than to improve residents' eating habits.

Baltimore created a Supermarket Initiative in 2002 that has used city economic development funds to attract 19 stores so far. The California legislature passed a bill in August designed to give low-income residents discounts to buy fruits and vegetables -- and help mom-and-pop stores carry more fresh food.

Chicago's planning department held a "grocers' expo" in February for executives from supermarket chains across the Midwest, who were handed a book touting 50 spots in Chicago where stores are needed, plus financial incentives the city could offer. And the National Conference of State Legislators just brought lawmakers to Philadelphia from Louisiana, New Mexico and Michigan to learn how they might replicate the food-financing initiative.

Here in Philadelphia, the initiative's first two years have yielded a central lesson: Despite the fervor of politicians, civic groups, bankers and several grocers, creating successful supermarkets in poor city neighborhoods is hard. It is daunting to train workers, maintain security -- even to acquire enough land.

"The money, to be honest with you, was the easy part," said state Rep. Dwight Evans (D), the initiative's main political patron. "The toughest part is to make this work."

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