Just because you build it doesn’t mean they will come. That’s the lesson Gary Cha learned the hard way after he opened one of his Yes Organic Market stores in Ward 8 two years ago in the name of expanding food-buying options in Southeast Washington. But what he does next with the Pennsylvania Avenue location might be the most telling about his dedication to neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River.

A portrait of Gary Cha at Yes Organic Market (the branch in Southeast) on Sept. 8, 2010, in Washington, DC. (Jahi Chikwendiu/WASHINGTON POST)

That is a noble cause. But dropping an organic food store in a neighborhood is not the way to do it, and neither is simply changing its name.

It requires a lot more than a business plan. It requires a neighborhood plan, one that involves engaging the community. Indeed, Cha admits that his original approach had its shortcomings.

“There are areas where we could have and should have done a better job,” he said. “This gives us a chance to actually look at ourselves. We found a lot of areas where we are very weak. We tried to bring organic and natural food to east of the Anacostia and tried to make it more affordable, but I don’t think we did a good job of conveying that message to the people there.”

He’s right; they didn’t. Changing attitudes toward food is something that requires an incredible amount of effort. One that, from a business standpoint, could pay off for years. But just showing up isn’t good enough.

The way to create healthier lifestyles isn’t going to come only from adults making new choices — it’s going to be spurred by children who push their families to make changes. That’s where Cha and others could really make a name for themselves.

My favorite days as a child were the ones when I got to visit my aunt and eat her country cooking along with pork rinds and drink quarter waters from the local stores in her neighborhood. If I played nice with my favorite cousin, Marc, on the weekends, Nell would let us walk down to the store and buy the snacks we loved. She lived in the Skyland neighborhood of Southeast, and those treats were heaven to me. So were the collard greens cooked with ham hocks and the ham-and-Miracle Whip sandwiches she would prepare.

But my tastes changed as I got older and as I understood the health implications of some of my eating habits. I stopped eating all of the sodium-heavy classics regularly. It was a health decision, but Nell understood.

But to this day, her old neighborhood still lacks options. On Wednesday morning, I went into Murry’s supermarket on Good Hope Road to see if anything had changed since the days I visited the neighborhood. The place was a mecca of processed food. I felt sick just standing in there.

Later, at the Harris Teeter near Barney Circle, I ran into a special-education teacher and my spirits were rekindled. She was shopping with her class as part of a menu-planning exercise. They were making grilled chicken salad. “We’re just teaching them better choices at school. Because most times, at home, they’re not healthy choices,” she said. “They get the cheapest stuff or fast food.”

We need more of that kind of ingenuity — and less of the gimmicky coupons and deals to try to draw people to spend money — to get folks in a healthier mind-set. It should be part of Cha’s new neighborhood plan. People want to eat better, but a transparent cash grab in a food desert is obvious to everyone. That’s what Yes Organic Market seemed to be doing at first, and it’s likely part of the reason why it failed.

Alonzo Kerr, who lives on the same block as the market, goes out of his way to shop at Safeway, largely because the other store never became a real part of the community. “I guess they speculated that if they put that nice building up, they would get a higher clientele of folks to move into their buildings and they would come to that [Yes] market,” Kerr said Wednesday. “But it hasn’t really been like that.”

And it shouldn’t be like that. The old proverb goes: If you give a man a fish, you’ll feed him for a day; teach him how to fish and you’ll feed him for a lifetime. But what good is that if many don’t value your fish and there are still so few fishing options?

Be a part of the solution by helping teach the value of healthy food. And thus, help them believe that you believe in the value of their lives.

Yates is a columnist for TheRootDC.

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