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Healthy Corners Program Tackles Urban Food Deserts

Words by Leon Kaye

In large cities across the world, from Seoul to Stockholm, the corner market is a fact of life. Prepared foods, staples, beer for that last-minute party and, yes, fresh produce are the norm. In Europe and Latin America, fresh food is everywhere, on corners and in stores crammed between apartment buildings, offering seasonal produce that is easy to pick up on the way home from work. But in the U.S., the bodegas in New York and corner markets in other cities often have a nefarious reputation for carrying overpriced, unhealthy and processed foods.

In Washington, D.C., however, a new initiative is helping these corner stores stock fresh fruits and vegetables. Its long-term success may prove that 'food deserts' -- or areas lacking grocery stores -- really do benefit when more healthful options are available to residents. It may also determine if our emphasis on fresh and even organic food as a tool to solve poverty and public health problems is just another health fad backed up by little than high doses of pseudoscience.

D.C. Central Kitchen is a nonprofit social enterprise that runs a bevy of programs, including training unemployed adults for food service careers, delivering unwanted food to those who need it, serving healthier school meals and now, distributing fresh produce to small corner stores that can try selling it at a profit with almost no financial risk.

The Healthy Corners Initiative is a forehead-slapping program that comes across as common sense. Many corners stores in America’s inner cities, after all, do not sell fresh food for two main reasons. First, they have their bills to pay like the rest of us, and therefore the second factor: Selling fresh produce for the little guys is a money-losing proposition. Small market owners cannot buy at wholesale rates the way supermarket and big-box stores can. Instead, they often buy produce from a warehouse store such as Costco, mark it up and then watch the produce spoil on their shelves. Fresh produce also needs refrigeration, which adds more costs to a business already running on thin margins.

D.C. Central Kitchen, or DCCK, tackles those challenges by selling produce to corner stores at wholesale prices, but in smaller quantities. DCCK provides the store with a refrigerator for free if necessary, and replaces any produce that goes bad without charge. Trucks within DCCK’s fleet that are already picking up and delivering goods now incorporate these stores, which have to be at least a quarter-mile from a supermarket, into their routes. According to the nonprofit, it now services 67 stores, which have culled another US$49,000 in earnings and have sold 88,000 units of fresh produce and snacks.

DCCK is making a noble effort, and it is impressive as social enterprises go — 60 percent of the organization’s funds comes from revenue it generates from programs such as Healthy Corners. But as a recent overview in The Atlantic discussed, not all residents are necessarily buying into the program. Which leads to the question: Are food deserts the festering public health and social problem that we have come to believe them to be?

A decade ago, the U.K. retailer Tesco scored plenty of press attention for opening Fresh & Easy stores across California, Nevada and Arizona — mostly in neighborhoods considered food deserts in cities such as Las Vegas, Phoenix, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Fresno. Despite competitive prices, the chain failed spectacularly for a bevy of reasons: At first it did not participate in the SNAP program (food stamps), carried products locals did not want, or lacked ethnic foods that met local tastes (prepared Indian curries and harissa paste are not for everyone). Of course, the irritating self-checkout and the fact that many of its food products were not always fresh or easy contributed to the chain’s demise. Maybe another retailer will figure out how these neighborhoods can support a supermarket -- which, fair or not, is the norm for grocery shopping in the U.S.

But ripe for discussion is whether living in a food desert is as bad for public health as we are led to believe. Studies are emerging that question the link between easy access to grocery stores and healthful eating. Additional research has questioned the ties to grocery store access and childhood obesity. And while we have been ingrained to believe fresh produce is the most healthful option, there is also plenty of evidence to suggest that frozen and canned fruits and vegetables (horrors!) are not such a bad option for a variety of nutritional and ecological reasons. Before fresh food was just a flight from Chile or South Africa away, consumers ate canned vegetables almost year-round without the obesity problems with which we currently struggle. One’s eating habits and preferences may not always be the problem, despite the preaching of those of us who insist fresh kale and chard are the way to go.

Could it be that while we try to solve the food desert challenge, the real problem may be the stress and ordeal of poverty in and of itself, as a Slate article last year suggested? But addressing that problem opens a can containing new and troubling questions, many of which make us as a society uncomfortable.

Image credit: D.C. Central Kitchen

Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye is a business writer and strategic communications specialist. He has also been featured in The Guardian, Clean Technica, Sustainable Brands, Earth911, Inhabitat, Architect Magazine and Wired.com. When he has time, he shares his thoughts on his own site, GreenGoPost.com. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

Leon Kaye headshotLeon Kaye

Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010, and became its Executive Editor in 2018. He's based in Fresno, CA, from where he happily explores California’s stellar Central Coast and the national parks in the Sierra Nevadas. He's lived in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay, and has traveled to over 70 countries. He's an alum of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California.

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