One of my most consistent memories growing up was going to the Horn of Plenty with my mother. A few minutes from my house, we made the drive to this independent grocery store several times a week. While my mom shopped, I chit-chatted with the friendly cashier, Sylvia, and fifteen minutes later, we left with the ingredients necessary to make our breakfasts, lunches, and most importantly, dinners. Every night around seven, my family gathered around the dinner table to enjoy whatever delicious feast my mother had made that night. There wasn’t much processed food, there were a whole lot of vegetables, a fair amount of laughter and endless teasing. Food came to symbolize comfort and family, and even today, there are few things I find more familiar or soothing than the sound and smell of sizzling garlic.
Another common activity involved trips to the Reading Terminal Market, a large indoor market in downtown Philadelphia where vendors sell produce, prepared food, meat, cheese, seafood, rare spices. My dad, who some might call food obsessed, would fly into a frenzy and we would find ourselves sitting at a table filled with a smorgasbord of dumplings, gyros, pad thai, and/or the esteemed Philadelphia hoagie. The throngs of people surrounding us were just as varied as our food options: Philadelphians of every size, age, and color were drawn in by the offerings of the Reading Terminal, mixing together in the din of the market.
Just after graduating, I worked at The Reinvestment Fund (TRF), a community development financial intermediary that began pioneering methods of supermarket financing in under-served neighborhoods. Given my food-oriented background, it will come as no surprise that I was immediately intrigued. Until that moment, I had never thought of myself as lucky just because fresh food was a part of my life. I began to delve into food access issues immediately, quickly realizing that I took for granted my seemingly commonplace trips to the Horn of Plenty, and I have spent the past few years learning more about the topic.
While many urban enthusiasts are well-versed in the history of urban boom and post-industrial bust, which is connected to the tale of disinvestment in low-income minority communities, it is easy to forget about food retail, since fresh produce is rarely the star of this story. Some brief background: Just as good schools, well-paved roads, and clean parks followed middle class white residents out into the suburbs, so too did independent groceries and supermarkets. Today, the food retail landscape is terribly skewed: studies show that low income communities have half as many supermarkets as the wealthiest neighborhoods, African American zip codes have half the number of chain supermarkets as white zip codes, and Latinos have a third as many markets. This leaves people to wallow in so-called food deserts, reliant on convenience stores that offer little or no produce, most of which is costly and, frankly, not very tasty. And those who live in these neighborhoods are less likely to have access to cars, or the money to spend on reaching one of those distant markets.
All of this makes purchasing healthy, fresh food extremely inconvenient, and the situation is manifesting itself in ways that are having serious repercussions for our waistlines and health. Right before our eyes, we have turned into a shockingly overweight nation. Today, over two-thirds of all Americans classify as overweight or obese. And while that statistic alone is a little bit terrifying, it gets even worse once you dig a bit deeper and find that those most impacted by the obesity epidemic are from low income and/or minority communities. Which, as you may recall, is where supermarkets are not located. So it suddenly seems like the issue of food access is very complicated, touching on issues such as land use, race, socio-economic status, and the very hot topic of obesity.
This summer, I am interning at the Philadelphia non-profit The Food Trust. This organization, highlighted by the First Lady’s Let’s Move initiative to end childhood obesity, is a national leader in the movement to increase access to healthy and affordable foods, as well as TRF’s partner in the successful efforts to create the Pennsylvania Fresh Food Financing Initiative. Between running farmers’ markets throughout the city, providing children with nutrition education, urging corner stores to offer healthier food options, and advocating for supermarket legislation across the nation, The Food Trust is the ideal place to explore how food access impacts public health as well as community and economic development.
As a public health graduate student with an interest in urban planning and community development, food access strikes me as one of those perfectly interdisciplinary issues, for it is inextricably connected to the idea of a healthy community. This can mean a variety of things to different people, and this blog series will explore some of those various meanings. Because, what, exactly, does a farmers’ market or a supermarket have to do with community development? Is it about more than just healthy residents? Does increasing the amount of vegetables in a community really amount to ‘community development,’ or is it stuck firmly in the domain of ‘health’? The next post will focus on the Clark Park Farmers’ Market, one of the city’s most popular markets, which is located in a neighborhood that has seen a lot of changes over the past few years.
Alissa Weiss comes from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She is currently a student at the Harvard School of Public Health, but she also gets to sneak in a fair amount of urban planning classes too.