CROSSING THE FOOD DESERT
It’s unseen by those of us just passing through, this invisible barrier to a quality of life often taken for granted. Maybe you don’t think twice to hop in the car and run back to the grocery store to pick up that forgotten item or to fill a whim after that notion just crossed your mind.
To those of us that live in it, however, it’s a void, a burden borne each day in a space of limited choice. The kind of space where real life consequences are endured in the forgotten swirl of poverty, streamlined commerce and logistics.
It’s a food desert. If you live in Greensboro, then chances are you’re never far away from one. There are 17 identified food deserts in Greensboro and 24 in Guilford County. A food desert is defined by the US Department of Agriculture as a residential area with a high level of poverty and where at least one-third of its residents live more than a mile from a grocery store.
In such places, convenience stores and fast food restaurants thrive, filling a need for food options that often leads to obesity, high blood pressure and other incidence of disease.
The Committee on Food Desert Zones, a legislative research commission created by the North Carolina General Assembly, summed up the connection quite well in a report issued in April 2014. The committee found 349 food deserts in 80 of our state’s counties. Some 1.5 million North Carolinians live in a food desert.
“Residents living in food deserts are more likely to suffer from obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and other diet-related conditions, while simultaneously being more likely to be food insecure,” the report states. “The consequences of food deserts could be enormous for public health, the economy, national security and more.”
The obvious answer to food deserts would seem to be simply opening supermarkets in food desert zones. To solve this complicated problem, however, takes much more than that. High incidence of poverty is one element of a food desert. This lack of economic vitality deters private-sector investment, again making it a fertile space for convenience stores and gas stations selling food products with a high profit margin.
Community groups, such as the Renaissance Community Co-Op in the Phillips Avenue area of northeast Greensboro, have gained momentum in recent years as awareness of the food desert problem has grown. Even in an area that has been without a nearby grocery store for more than 15 years, organizers have fallen well short of stated goals and financial timelines, which is forcing proponents of the for profit co-op to turn to cash-strapped city leaders seeking a boost to fully fund the movement in 2015.
As the Renaissance Co-Op continues to push toward the goal of a community-owned grocery store, other initiatives move forward as well. South of Downtown Greensboro in the Warnersville community, Guilford County Department of Health and Human Services staff is working on a couple of ideas to tackle the food desert problem.
The neighborhood has the highest rate of chronic diseases in all of Guilford County, said Janet Mayer, a nutritionist and registered dietician with the county DHHS. Mayer is a member of the mobile market coalition, a stakeholder group made up of government staff, student volunteers and community members.
Health workers began a targeted assessment of Warnersville back in 2011, looking at how the lack of access to healthy food contributed to the problem. The goal was to find healthy, affordable food for sale within walking distance of the community.
The idea for a local market was raised, but at first the focus went toward a community garden at the Prince of Peace Lutheran Church. Building on the success of the urban garden and market in Warnersville in 2012-13, Mayer said the county wrote several different grant applications, finally winning an award last year from the United Way and the Bryan Foundation. The $15,000 grant funded a mobile produce market, which organizers named The Mobile Oasis.
The Mobile Oasis didn’t roll out until the fall of last year, and Mayer said the response was good, but could have been better. Organizers learned from their experience in year one and plan to offer extended hours, targeted to increase resident participation.
The Mobile Oasis was available at a government office on Maple Street where folks renew their SNAP applications (formerly known as food stamps.) The second location, at the Warnersville Recreation Center, was available on Wednesdays last year during late morning and afternoon hours. Mayer said the plan is to extend the hours and target them later in the day, when folks might be picking up children from the center or coming home from work. The Mobile Oasis will begin in May this year, and run through the end of summer.
In addition to offering fresh foods, the Mobile Oasis has an educational component, which Mayer hopes will help reconnect people with the process of food preparation.
“There was a time when people ate seasonally,” Mayer said. “Now, with an influx of food from around the world, people don’t eat seasonally and locally, and many don’t know how to prepare foods. Many have never been taught how to cook.”
The need for convenience, due to location or ease of preparation, drives many of those living in food deserts to depend on fast food and corner stores. Mayer said the food desert phenomenon has spread during the last 20 years, as the profit margins of grocery stores shrank and many pulled out of low-income areas, leaving those already struggling to make ends meet to choose between increased transportation costs or finding food nearby.
As a generation has passed living in food deserts, many have never been exposed to healthy food options.
“Which comes first, nobody really knows,” Mayer said. “Do they just not like low-fat milk, or have they never been exposed to it? If the stores don’t sell it, then they don’t stock it and on down the line. There’s actually no easy answer to any of this.”
The Mobile Oasis offers recipe ideas that coincide with items for sale on the truck and incentives such as reusable shopping bags, recipe books and cooking utensils.
Mayer said the end goal is to give those living in food deserts more opportunity to purchase and prepare fresh fruits and vegetables in a healthy manner.
Convincing residents to buy, and stores to sell, are equally important.
“I think we have done a good job of building up some traction by increasing awareness of the problem and the (Mobile Oasis) project, which is the first step that needs to be taken,” Mayer said. “That all helps to further the effort in positive directions.”
Another food desert warrior is Marianne LeGreco, a professor of communication at UNC-Greensboro. LeGreco’s been involved with the drive to find solutions since coming to the city. She gave an inspirational talk at a TedX event last summer.
During the talk, archived on YouTube, LeGreco notes that some of the top food deserts in the nation are adjacent to high yield agricultural regions.
“Some of our most severe instances of this problem are happening in places where we grow food,” LeGreco said. “Food insecurity is more than just about access and where we grow food. It’s about poverty.”
She went on to describe food deserts as “the intersection of poverty and access,” which she said constituted a “systems issue.”
“It’s really not easy to make sure people have access to affordable food,” LeGreco said. “When we realize that food is a systems issue, we start to recognize all the pieces that have to work together.”
For those not content to settle for corner market or fast food solutions, transportation can be another barrier to the quest for healthier food choices.
LeGreco recalled a local television reporter that took a cab from Phillips Avenue to the nearest grocery store, a $20 round trip, to demonstrate the increased costs. For those who chose a city bus, LeGreco said, the GTA has a four-bag maximum for passengers.
“Not only is it challenging in terms of the time frame and dollars spent, it’s a challenge in terms of getting the food back home if you are on the bus,” LeGreco said. “We can hop in the car and be to the store in five minutes. On a bus it could take 20 minutes. It’s not as simple as hopping in a car and going to a store. It makes it that much easier to buy cheaper food that is more closely available. We’re not short on cheap food that is readily available.”
One of the most recent developments, LeGreco said, in the community’s search for food desert solutions is a $25,000 USDA grant for a local food-planning program. The money will be used to complete a local food assessment to figure out what resources are available, what gaps in access exist and then try and coordinate the variety of efforts taking place across the city.
“The idea is to get the best possible information about food systems so we are designing programs that can make a difference,” LeGreco said. The grant is being handled by City of Greensboro planning staff and requires a report to be finished sometime this summer.
Stakeholders are also planning to organize a local food council, to further ensure the various elements of the food system are communicating. Both LeGreco and Mayer, the nutritionist involved with the Mobile Oasis, mentioned the food council effort.
LeGreco said the process is in the recruitment stage, and that most anyone can be a member. The goal is to have a steering committee together soon.
“We’re in the beginning of mobilizing our efforts to address the challenges,” LeGreco said. “We’re trying to do it in a way that is smart and has some foresight to it.”
Part of that foresight is trying to get everyone on the same page, which she said is one of the biggest challenges.
“I think that will be a really important part of the food planning grant,” LeGreco said. “When we can get that information then we are able to coordinate interests and current efforts that are going on.”
LeGreco identified several ongoing trends in the search for solutions. Sustainable food processes, such as aquaponics for example, wherein fish and food are grown at the same time while feeding off of each other for nutrients, was one example. The Farmer’s Curb Market is working to develop more outreach mechanisms to make folks aware of the market. The Ethnosh meetups are bringing people together and raising awareness of the vibrant ethnic foods available in the city, LeGreco said.
She also mentioned that raising citizen engagement was important, both to the food-planning grant and to the larger search for food desert solutions.
“This really is a community-driven activity,” LeGreco said. “That’s one of the beautiful things about the Renaissance Co-Op. Having people who are directly impacted being involved in the solution.”
The Renaissance Co-Op experience represents many of the often overlooked challenges of economics and community engagement present in the search for food desert solutions. What should be a slam dunk “” the idea of opening a community-run grocery store in one of the city’s most isolated neigh-borhoods “” has benefitted from top-down direction and assistance from outside the community.
The push for the co-op, however, has fallen short of its goals for direct community buy in and equity financing. Renaissance Co-Op supporters stated their financial goals and timelines during an appearance before the legislative Committee on Food Desert Zones in early 2014. Their plan at the time called for 1,200 membership sales by December 2014, $200,000 in owner loans, $90,000 in owner equity and $450,000 in CDFI or other foundation grants.
In a proposal submitted in November to the City of Greensboro for $600,000 in taxpayer financing, the co-op said it had only received $51,900 in owner loans, which the plan says is “a typical part of food co-op financing.” Updated figures released in late January moved that figure up to $54,900. Some 447 memberships have been secured at $100 a piece, but that’s also well short of the stated 1200-member goal.
Co-op supporters have pieced together about $1.2 million in financing, both pledged and received, as of last month, but need another $600,000 to cover the costs related to opening the store, which are projected at $1.79 million.
The co-op proposal for city financing addresses the shortfall.
“With regard to member/ownership, we note that many in the community need to see ‘bricks and mortar’ before they can commit their hard-earned dollars to the $100 member/ownership fee “” this is why we are so eager for the city to finalize the sale of the shopping center to Self Help and get the renovations underway,” the document states.
Many elected leaders and most of the city’s activist community, as well as members of the media, continue to cheer on the push for the co-op, but others say the movement has failed to build the appropriate foundation in the community thus far, instead depending on seed money from a community organization to provide a bridge loan should membership sales fall short.
Louis Beveridge, who serves as treasurer on the Renaissance Co-Op board, said more could be done to educate and engage residents who live in the Phillips Avenue area. A market study shows some 34,000 residents living in the co-op’s target market. Beveridge said plans called for co-op supporters to engage up to 10,000 area residents, but he doubts they’ve connected with more than 1,000.
Beveridge compared the Renaissance Co-Op’s member list of 447 to the Company Shops Market, a food co-op in Burlington that opened in May 2011. That co-op has $800,000 in owner financing from a list of 1,800 members.
“How can Burlington do that, but Greensboro can’t even get on the board,” he said. “Some of it is timeline.”
Beveridge said the Renaissance Co-Op timeline was not an organic process. “The process came with a timeline not developed from the community, it was pushed and driven. As a result you can stunt the issues,” he said. “If you want to just open a store, that’s one thing. If you want to solve the problem, you have to do the work that it takes. These are two different issues.”
Because of seed money provided by the Fund for Democratic Communities, and F4DC’s promise of a loan to bridge any membership shortfalls, co-op organizers haven’t had to endure the type of existential struggle that generates cohesion.
“The tension that comes from solving the problems, that helps generate cohesion for the project,” Beveridge said. “When you don’t have that opportunity to struggle with those things, then you don’t get buy in from the population that you need.”
Beveridge noted that the president of a nearby neighborhood association had her own personal story highlighted in a recent media report, but that neighborhood had not been engaged by the co-op.
“We could easily have 1,000 owners. This community is so well-primed for something like this, that you just have to do the right thing,” he said. “Every church that I’ve talked to, the churches are primed for whatever. They are very much supportive of things that happen in our community. That hasn’t been done. There’s been a lot of passive-aggressive resistance to doing those types of things.”
Perhaps that’s begun to change as co-op supporters begin to rally more direct community support now that the city has indicated that they will not provide the full $600,000 needed to fully fund the project. A recent meeting at Laughlin Memorial Church was well-attended and a series of monthly community meetings at Presbyterian Church of the Cross is planned, beginning March 16.
Co-Op backers continue to negotiate with the city for public financing. A most recent proposal suggested last week would see the city provide a $250,000 matching grant, with a suggestion that the Renais- sance Co-Op seek a similar amount from Guilford County. !