Philadelphia is proud of its food culture and has a great restaurant scene in Center City. But outside the downtown, the city of 1.6 million has a 26 percent poverty rate and a need for affordable healthy food options. It also has a thriving network of partnerships with nonprofits, schools, and local chefs devoted to bridging this gap, according to healthy food advocates from three nonprofit organizations in Philadelphia who spoke at a session of the Spring Meeting in Philadelphia.
Some 16 percent of Americans are unable to find fresh food in their communities, and the problem is more significant in minority communities, noted moderator Maya Brennan, vice president of ULI’s Terwilliger Center for Housing. “When rents are high, people are forced to make choices and often can’t buy healthy food. Spending power in lower-income communities is tremendous, but available income for healthy eating is not great.”
In 1992, to expand affordable fresh food options, the historic downtown Reading Terminal Market started the Food Trust, which has brought farmers markets into 30 low-income neighborhoods, provides fresh food in schools, and works with corner stores to introduce healthy alternatives to processed snack foods. The corner store “interventions” involve working with owners, architects, and developers to build small spaces to highlight where fresh fruits, vegetables, whole-grain breads, and other nutritious items are located, said Yael Lehmann, president of the Food Trust. The fresh-food sections typically have green features, such as low-energy lighting, for sustainability and because energy is one of the biggest costs in running a corner grocery.
To make corner stores successful, advised Lehmann, “Do market research before you put in new products. Ask people in the community, ‘What do you want, and how much would you pay for it?’” If a child comes into a store and has exactly $1.07 to spend each day, the store has to offer a healthy option at the same price and value, such as grapes instead of a sugary drink. “Start with only a few items like low-fat yogurt to see if the store can make money selling them,” she advised. “People will buy it if you package it right—it needs to look good, taste good, and have the right price.”
Started in 2008, the Vetri Community Partnership, active in 55 schools, teaches students about the connection between healthy eating and healthy living through fresh food, education, and hands-on experiences. Local chef and owner of the acclaimed Vetri restaurants Marc Vetri and his business partner, Jeff Benjamin, created the Eatiquette school lunch program in which students learn how to cook healthy foods. Students then eat lunch together family-style, at round tables intended to encourage community and good table manners.
In Philadelphia, federally funded school breakfasts and lunches are free to all kids because of high poverty and need, noted Kelly Herrenkohl, Vetri Community Partnership’s chief operating officer. The problem is that two-thirds of the schools have no kitchens and serve “satellite lunches,” or plastic-wrapped containers of precooked food, which are not as appealing as freshly cooked food and don’t teach about food preparation or where food comes from. A solution, she said, is to “build more kitchens in schools.”
“What we’ve learned is things are hyper-local in low-income neighborhoods,” she said, so close access to fresh-food stores is critical in transferring the lessons of healthy eating to families. “People don’t have the resources to go farther. If we send kids home with a recipe and say, ‘Now do this with your families,’ they have to be able to find those foods at the corner grocery.”
“A neighborhood is not complete unless it has that healthy food access,” said Reinvestment Fund director of healthy food access Donna Leuchten-Nuccio. “When we put a grocery store in a community, that store often becomes an anchor for further development.” Finding the grocer is always the hardest part. She advised “working backward” and doing preemptive research about the opportunities and barriers to getting a grocery store to locate in the neighborhood, as well as considering options such as a smaller store that can run on different margins or that requires lower rent. The Reinvestment Fund established the Limited Supermarket Access tool to help determine demand for a grocery store, opportunity for improving access, and “enough food retail demand where we can make a difference.”
Barriers to building grocery stores in low-income neighborhoods include financing. The Reinvestment Fund is a certified federal Community Development Financing Institution that has $1.7 billion in community investments, has $841 million in capital investments, and has financed more than 3,000 U.S. projects. In 2004, it partnered to start the Pennsylvania Fresh Food Financing Initiative to address the need for grocery stores in low-income communities. The initiative, which ended in 2010, provided grants, loans, and new markets tax credits for financing and reduced debt service to fund 88 new food retail businesses across the state in urban and rural areas. It was used as a model for the federal Healthy Food Financing Initiative. In 2013, the Reinvestment Fund launched the ReFresh Initiative, a national network of lenders that the grocery industry and fresh-food industry can reach out to for financing.
Another big barrier is land use restrictions. Lack of surface parking could be “a nonnegotiable nonstarter because parking is key,” said Leuchten-Nuccio. However, in neighborhoods serving low-income populations, projects may need less parking because car ownership rates are generally lower. In such neighborhoods, good access to public transit is critical. “The average purchase goes down if people are walking to purchase groceries, and lower grocery purchases mean you need more people purchasing or more frequent visits.”
Real estate developers, financers, and city planners may not identify solutions to hunger and obesity as part of their mission, said Brennan, but within the framework of providing healthy food, “You can be part of something bigger than what you think your business is, and it can be good for your business. If you have space in your development, you can provide food access.”
Kathleen McCormick, principal of Fountainhead Communications LLC in Boulder, Colorado, writes frequently about healthy, sustainable, and resilient communities.