Do Low-Income Folks Really Want to Eat Healthy Food?

The tracks on the right are headed for Cub in the suburbs.

"If you build it, will they come?"

That's the essential question of NPR's article It Takes More Than A Produce Aisle To Refresh A Food Desert that's been making the rounds on Facebook and Twitter newsfeeds this week.

As it happens, the article is a nice bit of synchronicity for Seward. As we contemplate the how's, when's, and why's of opening the Friendship Store in South Minneapolis, our co-op community is thinking lots about "food desert" issues of late.

The NPR article, above, asks hard questions about food access by covering a new study from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine which examined the impact of a new store on a Philadelphia food desert. Researchers "surveyed residents of one low-income community in Philadelphia before and after the opening of a glistening new supermarket brimming with fresh produce. What they're finding, [Penn State Prof. Stephen] Matthews says, is a bit surprising: 'We don't find any difference at all. ... We see no effect of the store on fruit and vegetable consumption.'"

Surprising to Prof. Matthews and NPR, maybe.

To those of us in the business of selling natural foods (since 1972, in Seward Co-op's case), we know you can't just open a store anywhere and expect hordes to come a-shopping, particularly if the product mix is unusual for the locals. The study found that only 26% of the local "low income" population was shopping at the store. I wouldn't call that a failure to eliminate a food desert, I'd call that another day in the grocery business. Unless the store in question is driving an aggressive marketing campaign and/or taking a loss on prices (the article does not say what steps the supermarket took to attract local customers), no, people aren't going to change where they shop.

And why should they? People shop where they find good value and where they feel comfortable and welcome. And that's true, ahem, regardless of a neighborhood's relative income level. Drop an awesome store lush with local produce in a wealthy neighborhood or middle-class suburb, and it won't automatically change buying habits because of the virtue of its veggies, either.

But that begs the question: What's the real measure of success here? As of 2006, over 50% of Minneapolis lived in a food desert, with South Minneapolis being one of the most vast. Is the goal to simply reduce that desert acreage by opening groceries strategically (the London study says no)? To change dietary habits of the local low-income population? To reverse epidemiological data showing that diabetes is rampant in a given low-income area? To drive down the city's mean BMI? To put Popeye's out of business? To make a lot of money? Is it fair to expect that a run-of-the-mill grocery store would undo a food desert in the first place?

No, of course not. There's no money in hunger advocacy. Expecting a profit-driven business to prioritize and market to low-income shoppers is like hoping liquor stores will offer affordable poodle-grooming.

The rest of the NPR article is more on-point, by discussing the politics and particulars of hunger with public health researcher Alex Ortega who works to create effective healthy food hubs and educating low-income city dwellers about eating well. The article ends by deciding that the jury is still out as to whether outreach and education work.

The evidence may yet to be gathered on Ortega's excellent work, but there is an available model that researchers should be looking at, one that specifically targets getting food to the people who want it in areas where the food they want isn't attainable, and doing it in a way that doesn't ask farmers to take the hit so that the food can be sold as cheaply as possible.

Food co-ops.

Consider: Seward Co-op has its roots in the People's Pantry which was started around 1970. From Growing with Purpose about the history of Seward Co-op, the pantry was started because, "People wanted an alternative to heavily processed food" and "a place where one could get natural bulk foods at low cost." By 1971, the People's Pantry on the West Bank of Minneapolis had morphed into North Country Co-op which in turn gave birth to Seward Co-op further south on Franklin Avenue in 1972. Numerous co-ops were springing up all over the Twin Cities in the early seventies because the supermarket boom of the early 1960s was no longer serving everyone's needs -- and started creating food deserts. So began the hard work of creating a more socially just food system, where people who wanted healthy food would have access to it.

Changing a food desert is more than just opening a store and effectively marketing it for a few months, though -- it's hard "yeoman's work " for many, many years. For Seward, doing our small part to undo the damage that over-centralizing the food system has inflicted on Minneapolis has meant decades of saving pennies, paying good local farmers good prices season after season, offering classes on cooking to co-ops owner-members, and eventually putting together a business that has the financial muscle to open a second store -- forty years after Seward Co-op first opened its doors! A business that values only one bottom line -- the financial one -- might be able to expand sooner, but they're not really the answer to food access, as the NPR article pointed out. Big, glistening supermarket stores are what created food deserts to begin with. To water food deserts, seed them, and bring them back to sustaining communities again, it's going to take businesses that value multiple bottom lines.

Specifically, they need to embrace their entire community, not just the shoppers who can afford the fresh veggies and have the time to cook. To change a food desert, grocery stores will have to help their shoppers get creative the way Alex Ortega's UCLA project did. They'll also have to take part in WIC and SNAP programs and actually reach out to shoppers who use federal assistance. These stores must have it in their mission statements to embrace low income shoppers, saying, "We see you as part of our community, and therefore, our reason for doing business." If they don't, they're just a grocery store in a food desert.

Seward Co-op is one example of a store that honors multiple bottom lines, that is, we value economic equality, inclusiveness, and sustainability, not just making a profit. Shoppers who receive federal assistance can join our co-op at a reduced rate and receive a 5% discount on all purchases. We'll maintain this policy when we open the new Friendship Store and we'll do it without shorting farmers on the hard work they do.

One more thing, NPR and Dr. Matthews. The assumption that those living in a food desert are totally ignorant of food issues, eat unhealthily, are unwilling to pay for fruits and vegetables, and only know how to order drive-through food is a huge slice of Twenty First Century prejudice and very sloppy thinking. Here's what a Facebook reader had to say about Seward's involvement with WIC and our policy of subsidizing certain foods in order to comply with that program:

"As a SNAP [a.k.a., "food stamps"] recipient who tries her best to feed her family nutritious, local and sustainable food, but faces the reality that most of these products are out of my reach, I commend you. If more companies cared more about the people in their community, agriculture around the world and the Earth itself more than their bottom line, the world would be a much better place."

I'd argue that Seward Co-op's strategy of reaching out to everyone in our community -- low-income eaters, local farmers, and every link in between on that "food chain" -- is already working if we're making low-income folks feel like they belong in our Franklin Avenue store.

Like it says on the front of the current building: "Everyone Welcome."

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NOTE: Seward opened its doors in 1972, not 1974. The post has been edited to make that correction.