Food deserts are hurting Philadelphians. It’s time for new solutions.

For more than half a century, Philadelphia, like most major American cities, has struggled to solve its food desert problem. This is what it is called when a neighborhood no longer has a store that its inhabitants can count on to buy fresh and healthy food.

The simplest explanation for a disparity you won’t see in affluent neighborhoods is cost. A study concluded that a healthy diet high in vegetables, fruits, fish and nuts costs about $550 more per person each year than a diet high in processed foods, meats and refined grains. Stores whose bottom line is to cater to products avoid products that their customers cannot afford.

The consequences of this extend beyond figuring out what’s for dinner. People who lack access to healthy foods are more susceptible to developing a wide range of diseases, which have lifelong consequences. If you want to understand why there are often stark health disparities between low- and high-income areas, food deserts are one explanation.

The city’s entrepreneurial approaches to watering its food deserts have mostly failed. Progress Plaza, the brainchild of civil rights leader Reverend Leon H. Sullivan in North Philadelphia, included an A&P store when it opened in 1968. The store faced financial problems despite being operated by what was then America’s largest supermarket chain. A&P closed in 2015, but the store’s current operator, New Jersey-based chain Fresh Grocer, has similar concerns.

READ MORE: Fighting food apartheid: Black entrepreneurs and leaders fight 60 years of retail redlining to bring supermarkets to North Philadelphia

These problems, described in an Annie E. Casey Foundation study of food deserts, are not unique to Philadelphia. On the one hand, there is the lower purchasing power of clients, some enrolled in the supplementary nutritional assistance program, whose ability to buy food can change from month to month. Stores may also incur higher insurance costs and security costs due to higher actual or perceived crime rates.

With supermarket chains shunning them and the mom-and-pop stores of yesteryear no longer in existence, many people in low-income communities have no choice but to buy food from small corner stores, convenience markets, bodegas and fast food restaurants, which rarely include fresh fruits and vegetables.

The pandemic has only worsened the situation by forcing the closure of small businesses and stores whose clientele has collapsed. While these stores are unlikely to be replaced by large-scale retailers, some food desert solutions tested in other cities could work in Philadelphia if they looked beyond entrepreneurship as an answer.

Baltimore, for example, has worked closely with Joel Gittelsohn, a medical anthropologist at Johns Hopkins University, who has conducted six studies since 2005 on what he prefers to call food swamps. “There’s plenty of food available, but it’s high in fat, sugar and sodium,” Gittelsohn told Politico.

Gittelsohn has helped take-out restaurants change their menus to avoid frying, and corner grocery stores are stocking healthier foods. He points out that many small stores stock junk food and sugary drinks because they have informal agreements with “the chip guy, the ice cream guy” that “give them incentives: free displays, freezers, reduced prices, free products. But such a system does not exist if they want to store skimmed milk or fresh produce. »

» READ MORE: What is food insecurity? How Philly deals with hunger, food deserts and access to good food.

Working with a non-profit grocery store run by the Salvation Army, Gittelsohn has created an app that allows small grocery stores to pool their buying power to purchase products from wholesalers whose minimum purchase requirements are generally too high. It is also working with Morgan State University, a historically black university, to launch a pilot program with Lyft that will provide $2.50 grocery store rides for residents of low-income neighborhoods.

Baltimore offers property tax credits to supermarkets in designated neighborhoods that meet requirements for the amount of healthy food they sell, and the city’s health department has created a virtual supermarket web program that allows seniors to order groceries online for delivery to designated locations near their homes.

SNAP also offers an online shopping program whose Pennsylvania participants include Aldi’s, BJs, Sam’s Club, ShopRite, Sprouts, Wegmans, Walmart and Whole Foods. But the federal equivalent of this The program was put into the 2014 federal farm bill as a pilot project and was never made permanent. In the meantime, cities like Philadelphia should consider following Baltimore’s lead in making online shopping a viable alternative to bringing fresh food to food deserts.

Nearly 40 million Americans – 12.8% of the US population – live in low-income areas with limited grocery choices. Waiting for a supermarket chain to come to the rescue has proven futile for too many neighborhoods. Instead, local governments must work with nonprofits, public policy organizations, health departments, and local store operators to develop workable alternatives to bring fresh food to more homes. The path is there; all it takes is the will.

About Walter Bartholomew

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