The fight to eliminate food deserts in St. Louis

Antwan Pope has a vision. When the social services specialist surveys his Wells Goodfellow neighborhood, he sees fertile ground for a food revolution. The Wellston Station, a century-old, open-air pavilion where streetcars once stopped at the city limits, has what Pope calls a ready-made “farmers market atmosphere,” complete with a Chuck Berry mural. Nearby vacant lots seem perfectly suited for community gardens where residents could grow their own produce.

And of course, Pope sees plenty of room for a grocery store – a full-service one where his 88-year-old grandmother could shop for fruits and vegetables instead of traveling two miles to Schnucks City Plaza.

“She shouldn’t have to do that,” he said.

Pope’s plan for reviving the intersection of Hodiamont Avenue and Dr. Martin Luther King Drive is evidence of the activism at work throughout St. Louis, intended to create more equitable access to affordable, healthy food.

antwan pope // photo by izaiah johnson

The area is plagued by food deserts – neighborhoods without a Dierbergs, Shop ’n Save or Aldi in sight. Most of their inhabitants are people of color. In the city, nine census tracts have significant numbers of low-income residents who live at least a mile from a grocery store, according to 2015 data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service. There are 22 such tracts in St. Louis County. Change that distance to a half-mile, and dozens more communities qualify as deserts.

That distance might not sound like such a big deal, but it matters especially to people who don’t have cars. In Wells Goodfellow, about one-fifth of households lack personal vehicles, which means residents are dependent on public transportation – or their own two feet – to get to supermarkets elsewhere. Walking a mile is easy if you’re in good health, but think about how hard it can be to unload groceries when you’re just carrying bags from the car to your kitchen counter. Now imagine making the trip on foot as an 88-year-old, or while carrying your child, or dependent on a wheelchair. Even those cute, foldable personal shopping carts wouldn’t be much help, considering that to trek the 1.7 miles from Wellston Station to the nearest grocery store – a Save-A-Lot – you have to hike through overgrown lots or trod carefully on the road’s edge because the sidewalk disappears.

Incapable of making such a trip as often as they need to and tired of subsisting on meager gas station selections, desert dwellers are increasingly looking inward to improve their food access. They’re teaming up with advocates in academia and development to devise innovative economic solutions. They’re figuring out new ways to tap the resources their neighborhoods already have, most notably the corner stores that serve as lifelines on blocks with no other options.

Why, they ask, should they have to go elsewhere to find milk and broccoli and whole-grain bread? Why can’t healthy food come to them?

“With neighborhoods in St. Louis, there’s a real opportunity to change food culture,” said Bob Ray, part owner of the Washington Avenue Post market.

Swapping Out Sugar
If Walnut Park East is home, chances are you have trouble getting groceries. Like a quarter of your neighbors, you may not have a car, which means you take the bus to the nearest Save-A-Lot, which is miles away.

Much closer is the Regal Meat Market. For years, your family may have stopped by for chicken wings, gyros or hamburgers. The Hamed family, owners since 1998, takes pride in having you as a loyal customer. They may even give you a free Thanksgiving turkey.

If Regal stocked the same kinds of groceries as Save-A-Lot, it could significantly change the contents of your fridge.

from left, majd and saddam hamed at regal meat market // photo by izaiah johnson

So believes Kara Lubischer, specialist in healthy food access at the University of Missouri Extension. St. Louis is sprinkled with more than 250 corner, convenience and liquor stores, local institutions that serve as food sources for places like Walnut Park East. A few years ago, Lubischer recognized the potential these shops have to stand in for absent supermarkets.

“Instead of going after the shiny and new, I saw this as an opportunity to go after what we already have,” she said.

In 2011, Lubischer led a team to develop the St. Louis Healthy Corner Store Project. Designed to increase both the demand for and the supply of nutritious food in small neighborhood markets, it relied on the expertise of store owners, community organizers, city officials and customers.

The primary goal was modest: increase the amount of healthy food on corner store
shelves by 5 percent. That meant reduced-fat milk instead of whole milk, water instead of
soda and whole-grain products instead of processed sugar snacks.

Lubischer knew imposing programs on communities from the outside rarely works well. So she and her team went to churches, neighborhood associations and schools, asking locals to nominate stores they’d like to participate. The community council of Walbridge Elementary nominated Regal Meat Market.

Although such nominations were flattering, alone they weren’t always enough to incentivize store owners. After all, “businesses are in business to make money,” Ray said.

So project leaders provided marketing support like signs, produce bins and customer loyalty cards. They talked up the fact that corner stores can make profit margins on dairy, bread, meat and produce ranging from 25 to 50 percent. And they explained that some participating stores were eligible for grants to improve their facades with new awnings and repaired windows.

Ultimately, nine store owners signed on.

“It was sort of a brave thing for them to do,” Lubischer said. “They were running their businesses just fine before the university and the health department showed up.”

Ray came on board to talk shop with other store owners, sharing his institutional knowledge about which grocery distributors offer fair prices to independent markets and how to make a profit off healthy goods. Owners were often wary of stocking perishable food that might spoil before it sold. Ray told his mentees that bananas are a safe bet.

“People are bananas about bananas,” he said. “Our store goes through two cases, with 13 bunches per case, every week. We sell a single banana for 59 cents.”

That lesson resonated with Majd Hamed at Regal Meat Market. Previously, bananas hadn’t sold well there, so Ray suggested moving them closer to the registers so they’d become impulse purchases.

“We stuck to it, and I can’t keep up with bananas no more,” Hamed said. “We put them on the counter in the front, and oh my God, the bananas don’t even get to turn yellow.”

Experimentation has since taught Hamed that red grapes are big sellers, while “white grapes sit and rot and I’ll lose my money.” Lemons go quickly, but cabbage is hit or miss; some weeks it sells, other weeks it gets old and has to be tossed.

Project leaders knew it was essential to educate customers in order to increase demand for the items store owners were stocking.

“You can’t just stick healthy food in the neighborhood and have people start buying it without having any idea it’s there or having any idea what to do with it,” said Mary Wissmann, a nutritionist who works with the university extension program.

Stores hosted healthy product taste tests and cooking demonstrations using recipes that called only for ingredients available on the shelves. There were nutrition classes in senior centers, churches and community centers near the participating corner stores. Tailored to address community concerns like diabetes and early childhood nutrition, the courses taught important skills including reading labels, shopping on a budget and preparing meals. Healthy Corner Store Project representatives attended the classes to inform people their local markets had started stocking relevant items.

To make the program more sustainable, project leaders wanted to encourage customers to give owners direct feedback about products they’d like to buy. They set up poster boards in each store labeled with the question, “What healthy foods would you like to see here?”

Regal Meat Market had been trying unsuccessfully to sell whole watermelons. When its poster board went up, someone wrote, “cut watermelon.” Other customers circled the recommendation, then starred it.

So the Hameds cut up the melons, put the pieces into plastic cups and attached forks. The handy snacks started selling immediately – a sweet, yet wholesome, alternative to candy.

Bringing Back the Bounty
By 2015, after four years in operation, results from the St. Louis Healthy Corner Store Project were promising. Some stores ended up with 25 percent more healthy inventory, far surpassing the 5 percent goal.

Of course, some parts of St. Louis lack even corner stores.

When Pope decided in 2014 to rehabilitate the Wellston Station corner through youth meal and activity programs, “there was no produce, no fresh fruit, no kind of vegetation in the area, period,” he said. Student volunteers from Washington University and the University of Missouri – St. Louis who came to help with clean-up days all noticed there were no stores – other than a laundromat, a pawn shop and a Family Dollar.

Leaders at Operation Food Search, a food distribution nonprofit, confirmed to Pope that the area is indeed a food desert. That wasn’t always the case. The neighborhood once had a thriving business district. Observers in 1941 noted an abundance of “open stalls for vegetables and flowers, crates of chickens and geese, and the tantalizing odors of herring and dill.” One of Pope’s elderly neighbors enjoys recalling the days when jobs – and produce stands – were plentiful near Wells Goodfellow.

Pope is determined to coax that kind of bounty back into his community. There are signs of progress, like the several community gardens planted among the neighborhood’s houses.

Ray believes these gardens, and more substantial established urban farms, have the potential to change his neighborhood’s relationship with food. That is, if they’re invested in. “Instead of a food desert, we could be raising food in these communities because of all this vacant land,” he said. “We could be creating jobs and opportunity.”

Other St. Louisans have taken up the charge. In The Grove, City Greens Market offers produce, meat and other products from Missouri and Illinois to members who pay on a sliding income scale. The nonprofit co-op evolved out of a CSA program in the basement of St. Cronan Church, created by women tired of making multiple bus transfers to get to supermarkets.

This fall, the Wellston and North Hanley MetroLink transit centers will boast brand-new markets selling produce, pantry staples and refrigerated items. The University of Missouri Extension will provide nutrition education on-site at least once a month at each location.

And in January, Good Life Growing, a Vandeventer farm that uses hydroponic, aquaponic and aeroponic systems, plans to open Old North Provisions, a mixed-use restaurant and grocery store.

Pope is excited that Metro Market, a bus-turned-mobile-produce-stand that has occasionally come to Wells Goodfellow, is hoping to add the area to its regular rotation next year. The market specializes in low-cost, local produce and is participating in the Double Up Food Bucks program, which allows customers spending food assistance benefits to double their money on fruits and veggies.

“When they pulled that bus on that corner, oh my God,” Pope said. “They literally sold all the stuff they had on this bus out.”

Local Lessons, National Legacy
Financial support for the St. Louis Healthy Corner Store Project, which came from the Missouri Foundation for Health, the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services and a Community Development Block Grant administered by St. Louis Development Corporation, ran out in 2015. The project ended.

Its leaders used the lessons they’d learned to create a similar, Missouri-wide program called Stock Healthy, Shop Healthy. Lubischer oversees the program, which operates in 14 counties and counting, from Kansas City.

Seven other states have emulated the new program. St. Louis, Lubischer said, deserves full credit for its success.

“We learned great things from our store owners. They taught us so much,” she added.
It’s possible that the corner store program will return to St. Louis, if the right local partner champions it. Whether the model can sustain itself and how much it could transform food deserts, though, depends on who you ask. Some corner stores have trouble processing food assistance benefits, for instance, which reduces their usefulness to many customers.

Corner stores will never become Whole Foods, Lubischer cautions. Rather, she hopes businesses like Regal Meat Market will stock enough tomatoes and whole-grain bread to sustain families without ready access to a car until their next major supermarket trip.
Such markets need advocates in local and state government, Ray believes, especially when so much support already goes to major enterprises like the Schnucks Culinara.

“It would be better to support small businesses, help them become nice little markets, than it would to support multimillion-dollar companies that don’t need the help,” he said. “We should be setting up co-ops to give some of these smaller businesses buying power to buy bulk purchases in order to be competitive. It’s almost impossible to compete. It just is.”

Years after the St. Louis Healthy Corner Store Project’s official end, Regal Meat Market still moves a lot of potatoes, lettuce, apples, oranges, tomatoes and green peppers. Hamed spoke favorably of the project’s goals, but lamented the difficulty the store has had marketing healthy goods to younger customers, who he said still seem to prefer “junk food.”

“If it wasn’t for the old people who come here and cook, a lot of my stuff would go to waste,” he said.

Still, one of the strong sellers at Regal Meat Market is a holdover from the Healthy Corner Store Project. A few years ago, on the advice of project leaders, the Hameds used a donated chalkboard sidewalk sign to advertise a new prepared food product: fresh chicken salad.

“That worked,” Hamed said, “bringing us different clientele: healthy food eaters.”

Why are food deserts a problem?
There are 9 St. Louis city and 22 St. Louis County census tracts that qualify as food deserts, with residents – primarily low-income people of color – living at least 1 mile from a grocery store. In some of these neighborhoods, 20 percent of households don’t have a car and there are 0 sidewalks. Try walking a mile on the side of a busy road lugging 50 pounds of groceries in fragile plastic bags. Now imagine you’re elderly, disabled or caring fulltime for your children.

Businesses and organizations working to eradicate St. Louis food deserts
City Greens Market 4260 Manchester Ave., St. Louis, 314.884.8460,
Good Life Growing 4057 Evans Ave., St. Louis,
Old North Provisions 2720 N. 14th St., St. Louis (opening 2018)
Operation Food Search
Regal Meat Market 5791 Thekla Ave., St. Louis, 314.382.8509
St. Louis Metro Market
Stock Healthy, Shop Healthy
Washington Avenue Post 1315 Washington Ave., St. Louis, 314.588.0545, Facebook: Washington Ave Post

Tags : People, Places