Posted September 7th 2010 at 10:03 am by
in Food Fever and Fresh Food Access in Philadelphia

The Value of Supermarkets

Approximately 1.5 months after moving to Cambridge, my mother got used to my rants about the lack of grocery stores in my new neighborhood.  The closest Shaw’s carried produce that made my nose wrinkle, and it seemed exceedingly expensive.  The little markets up the street were also costly, and sometimes the smell in the stores made me uncomfortable.  Instead, I would mount my bike and head two miles to the closest Trader Joe’s.  Picture me biking home, uphill, in the winter, wearing a heavy winter coat, balancing bags of weighty cauliflowers and grapefruits, muttering about how much I missed my produce store in Philadelphia.  It’s not a pretty or flattering picture, but it happened, several times throughout the year.

While all I want is an apartment close to a variety of food shopping options, I recognize that I care about food and cooking more than the average person.  So I decided to find out how other people feel about supermarkets and grocery shopping, and conducted a completely unrepresentative, totally biased survey.  (NOTE: My public health professors would cringe if they saw this survey.  I’m sure that it is filled with flaws and confounders, including – but not limited to – a lack of data on education, race, socio-economic status.  Also, the sixty-eight individuals who completed the survey are somehow connected to me and, therefore, are more likely to like food. A lot.) Regardless, here are the results of my little study:

• Three quarters of the respondents considered grocery store or supermarket proximity when moving into a new neighborhood, apartment or house.

• Over half of the respondents, fifty-six percent said that grocery store or supermarket proximity is very important to them when considering a move.

• The majority of respondents are willing to walk or drive five to ten minutes to their supermarket or grocery store.

• Nearly three quarters of respondents patronize two or three markets for their complete shopping in an average week.

• When people were asked how important a supermarket is when compared to other neighborhood amenities, over one third rank it first.

I asked people to list the attributes that they are looking for in a grocery store, and the most frequent responses were not surprising.  Convenience of location and proximity, a wide variety of products, affordable prices, and quality fresh food (produce, meat, cheese, fish), all housed in a clean store were qualities that were more important to people.  But beyond the basics, people want more: a variety of ethnic products, Kosher food, gourmet take-out and specialty items, as well as gluten-free products.  Shoppers want their market to offer local, organic, natural foods.  People want parking, short checkout lines, easy-to-navigate stores, and wouldn’t it be nice if the supermarket was cute and welcoming too?

I designed this survey to understand the value people place on supermarkets as a local amenity, perhaps pointing to the role that markets play in neighborhood desirability.  While the results of this survey are only representative of a very (very) small and very particular subset of the population, I think the point is: people do care about grocery stores.

Since becoming exposed to the food desert concept, I have been disturbed by the idea that people somehow think that not everyone cares about having access to a high quality, affordable supermarket.  Surely the people living in Philadelphia’s low-income neighborhoods, where there isn’t a supermarket to be found, would like a high quality grocery store just as much as, if not more than the respondents of this survey.  The Associate Director of The Food Trust’s Supermarket Campaign reminds me that while access to local, seasonal food grown by the farmer in front of you is a precious thing, so too is the ability to walk into a store and buy the full range of ingredients necessary to make whatever it is you want for dinner, not just whatever microwave meal happens to be there, or whatever fast food dinner you buy because there aren’t any markets nearby.  In too many communities, people are stuck with the latter two options.

Legitimate barriers contribute to this dearth of supermarkets in low-income, urban neighborhoods, beginning with the low-profit margins that constrain the supermarket business.  In comparison to the sprawling stores in the suburbs, the industry has challenges navigating the smaller square footage and zoning restrictions present in urban environments.  There are concerns about security, high workforce turnover, and misperceptions about low-income residents’ purchasing power and desire for fresh produce.

Policymakers, non-profits and local residents are addressing these issues through a variety of programs.  In cities like Boston and Baltimore, strong mayoral leadership pushed their economic development teams to wrangle food retailers into the city.  In other communities, neighborhood advocates played a critical role in attracting markets to the community.  Washington D.C. has used supermarket tax exemptions; the NYC  F.R.E.S.H. program provides zoning and financial incentives to existing or new retail in priority areas throughout the city.  The Pennsylvania Fresh Food Financing Initiative offered grants and loans to supermarket operators and developers in underserved communities across the state, and has become a model for legislation in other cities, states, and now the nation.

Why all the hub-bub?  Aside from the health benefits associated with fresh food access, there are other positive impacts that are just as important.  Supermarkets serve as strong anchor retail businesses and are capable of sparking commercial investment and development in surrounding areas.  They are also stores that offer jobs at a variety of rungs up and down the career ladder; good, decent jobs for residents in neighborhoods in dire need of employment.  According to a study tracking the impacts of supermarket development in Philadelphia’s traditionally underserved neighborhoods, a new grocery store can boost local housing prices by four to seven percent, pointing to the fact that neighborhoods gain with the presence of a supermarket, and lose without one.

Researchers are also beginning to develop metrics to study food access in rural communities and cities are playing with creative solutions like Baltimore’s Virtual Supermarket Project, and more states are beginning to consider supermarket legislation.  The positive impacts of supermarket access include health, housing prices, employment, and local investment.  I can’t help but think it boils down to one question: who wants to live in a neighborhood without a grocery store?

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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.