Fighting Food Deserts One Neighborhood at a Time

Inspired by a desire to wipe out food deserts, Jim Scanlon opened this Newport News store.
Inspired by a desire to wipe out food deserts, Jim Scanlon opened this Newport News store. Photo credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch.

The Richmond Times-Dispatch ran a profile today of Jim Scanlon, a former Ukrops Super Market executive who opened a grocery store near downtown Newport News and plans another in Richmond’s East End. His mission is to eliminate Virginia’s so-called “food deserts” one neighborhood at a time. The story of how Scanlon has worked with local economic development authorities in Newport News and with the backing of philanthropist Steven Markel in Richmond creates a message of hope.

But one must ask, how will Scanlon succeed where others have failed? As the article notes, the Brooks Crossing area of Newport News, where one of Scanlon’s stores is located, had been served by an unnamed grocery store until about two years ago, when it abruptly closed. Likewise, the East End of Richmond had been served by Community Pride, which shut down in 2004 after its African-American owner-entrepreneur, Johnny Johnson, encountered major financial difficulties.

I’ve read dozens of articles about food deserts and the effort to coax grocery stores into those areas. Reporters frequently describe how the old grocery stores closed but never seem curious about why. It’s not as if their customers suddenly became penniless. Poor people get food stamps to supplement their other sources of income just the way they always have. Social critics have argued that food stamps don’t provide enough money for a nutritious diet, and perhaps that’s true, but it’s not as if food stamps were ever sufficient by themselves to support a healthy diet.

Grocery stores in poor urban areas encounter problems that stores in affluent suburban areas do not. Urban stores have a higher incidents of theft and pilferage. They also have more “slip and slide” insurance claims, as I learned from Johnson. Before expanding too aggressively and getting overextended financially, Johnson was successful because, as an African American, he had a keen understanding of the markets he was serving. He knew how to hire reliable employees. He dispatched to pick up little old ladies who couldn’t drive to his stores. The demise of his business was a tragedy for many.

Ironically, while grocery stores have failed in poor urban neighborhoods, convenience stores have flourished. In Richmond’s East End, these stores are typically owned by Koreans, Middle Easterners or other ethnic minorities not bound to conventional white, professional-class thinking. Invariably, these are small, family businesses. The owner-shopkeepers work long hours, drafting spouses, children, cousins and other relatives as employees they can trust, and I would wager they accept smaller profit margins. They develop personal relationships with their customers, often extending small sums of store credit in a way that a conventional grocery store never would. Perhaps most important, convenience stores stock what their customers are buying, which, unfortunately, is heavy on junk food and cheap sources of carbohydrates like rice and pasta.

Food products that sell in middle-class neighborhoods don’t sell as well in the inner city, where poor people don’t have the same tastes, don’t have the same disposable income, and make different trade-offs between cost and quality. Grocery-store business models built around catering to the middle class don’t work in the ‘hood unless the demographics are shifting — which happens to be the case in Richmond’s Church Hill area and is likely so in Newport News’ Brooks Crossing redevelopment as well. If Scanlon’s ventures pay off, I expect the credit to go to middle-class gentrifiers.

What worries me is that, as we see in efforts to ameliorate the housing and transportation issues of the poor, fixing the food-desert problem deals with a symptom of poverty without addressing the underlying causes. What poor people really need first are stable jobs and higher incomes so they can afford to buy better food.  Then they need to cultivate a taste for healthier cuisine. Otherwise, they’ll end up like a lot of better-off Americans, using their money to buy more expensive junk food.

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15 responses to “Fighting Food Deserts One Neighborhood at a Time”

  1. Terrific post, JB — these are the real issues of urban life.

    You suggest it’s all in the approach of a few people with a different business model. I remember in the Richmond Fan District how the lingering old neighborhood drug stores and bars with their grandfathered zoning status all began being converted into restaurants and upscale shops in the 1960s — roughly the time when VCU student housing needs expanded rapidly and the Fan real estate market started to rebound. I wonder if some touch, some degree, some attitude of gentrification is necessary to encourage a “forward-looking” entrepreneur to invest in the future of a neighborhood. There’s a depressing lack of investment in some urban locales precisely because safety and neighborhood economic health are still spiraling downward — much of Baltimore comes to mind. Let me pose this question: is gentrification — with all the improvement and resentment that word implies — a necessary precondition for, not merely a result of, the elimination of ‘food deserts’?

    1. Very good question. You stated the proposition more clearly than I did. From my personal observation of Church Hill, admittedly a limited experience, gentrification provides the demographic base to support more upscale shopping, including grocery stores that provide an amenity for everyone, rich, poor or in between.

      People are trying some interesting experiments, but it’s not clear if they will be successful. I recall the instance of the 31st Street Baptist Church, an African-American church, which maintains a vegetable garden and a food pantry for the poor and homeless in the area. The working-class and middle-class parishioners, who have many other obligations, volunteer their time to keep the garden and pantry going. They find it difficult to get the recipients of the food to contribute to the effort.

  2. LarrytheG Avatar

    well, it costs about half a million dollars to run the Fredericksburg Food Bank with about 20 employees. And equal number of volunteers help out.

    they receive and distribute about 6 million dollars worth of food to about 20,000 folks.

    so the question is ..where does the half million dollars come from for employees?

    that’s the big issue. In Fredericksburg, the food bank charges .19 cents a pound for food so even if a church has volunteers – they also have to pay for the food. Our little church of about 100 parishioners serves about 100 and has to come up with more than a thousand dollars a month to buy that food and distribute it and that’s on top of the 40+ volunteers we have to go get the food, store and distribute it.

    that’s what it takes to actually provide food to a local community – on a sustainable basis… rather than what I call a “feel good” basis which is not a reliable week-in, week-out feeding of the poor.

    Many other churches in our area that do pantries – are much smaller in operation – because of the dollar cost per month required to get the food.

    I’m not casting aspersions – just saying that actually maintaining and operating on a sustainable basis is costly – in terms of dollars and labor.

    and in terms of them helping – some do – but many are not in good health – and that should not be surprising – people who need assistance usually are not able physically to actually help themselves.

    People might visualize young and able but lazy and shiftless coming to get their “food”. The reality is these are people that life has beat to a pulp and they’re at the end of their rope at age 50.. 60… and yes even older.

    1. I’m only distantly familiar with The Table at St.Georges, F’burg, but if that church is anything like yours, I know the Fredericksburg area food ministry has become a real success story and example for others over the years. Up here we’re in too suburban a location but make our contribution in kind and volunteering through a regular stint in the kitchen at SOME, So Others Might Eat. Ironically, they serve in one of the worst food deserts in DC only blocks east of the newly gentrified area (with the biggest group of new restaurants in the City) north of Logan Circle.

  3. The way to higher salaries is better and more education. You don’t get that unless you apply yourself. It is a personal choice.

    I applied what little I have to getting my college degrees. I then applied it to continuing learning in my field. I also learned how to DIY on what projects I could and learned what I could to pick those who give me the best value.

    A culture like that is going to help you succeed. Valuing education, self sacrifice, hard work. Make a stable family. Those types of things get you somewhere.

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      @V N – I’m in strong agreement with you but what do you say about coal miners and factory workers who lost their jobs?

      same advice?

      1. Put the effort forth to retrain. What about nursing types of jobs? That will last longer and we need more nurses. That isn’t a job requiring a 4 year or more degree. I’m talking about practical nurses.

  4. LarrytheG Avatar

    One of the lesser known things about Food Banks how stores decide what to donate to them. Obviously perishable things like produce and bread but they also donate meat as well as canned and jarred and boxed food that has “gone out of date”.

    Those dates are purely voluntary and not required by the govt (except for baby formula). They are categorized as “sell by”, or “best if used by”, etc but the definitions are in general dates when manufacturers think optimal quality starts to degrade – even though the product may last and be perfectly fine to eat for months or even years.

    So it’s the donation of these “sell by” foods that feed the Food Banks, that, in turn feed the distributed pantries – and feed people.

    What would happen to these products if there were no food banks?

    I suspect that deep discount stores specializing in “sell by” foods would spring up.

    What the Food Banks do – that the stores want is come pick up the donation in a timely matter – on the day they call if they can.

    That’s the difference between a fully operational food bank with full time employees, trucks and large room-sized freezers and coolers and smaller operations run by volunteers with limited storage space and cooler/freezer space.

    Millions of dollars are required to build a full-service food bank – it’s not usually something a few churches can throw in together and build and operate.

    And again, this goes back to how does a community build a food bank without government (taxpayer) help?

    the conventional thinking that we often hear about food banks and pantries is that some “good” volunteers make it work.

    but the hard reality is that it takes a lot more than that – and the community itself have to decide if they are willing to put their own money into the building of a active full time food bank. It’s not something you get to happen by volunteering two hours a week at a local pantry.

    the Food Bank is actually what is needed to provide food to volunteers to pass out at these local pantries… Without that steady stream of food, local pantries would have much less locally-collected food on a unreliable and variable basis depending on local donations.

    Gardens are “feel good” enterprises that generate very low levels of food only at certain times of the year. You cannot feed people year around with gardens. They make nice additions to the canned and boxed food – when available but produce is not available on a reliable basis because food stores calibrate fairly precisely these days and too much left over produce pretty much kills any profit from the produce department – so what we often see is a “jerky” stream of produce – and what we do see – is obviously past it’s prime. The food bank does not even charge for it – because they know volunteers have to go through it and cull the bad stuff… and salvage whatever is left to hand out. Sometimes the food bank has NO produce – for days or even weeks.. other times, for odd reasons, it’s inundated with something they got way too much of and could not sell it all..

    1. I understand it’s not a trivial matter to run a good food bank. The one in your area has about a $2 million annual budget (excluding the food itself): Fredericksburg Regional Foodbank, There’s a smaller one in the rural area to the east — Northern Neck Food Bank — and there’s the big one in Richmond — Central VA Food Bank (FeedMore). None of these specializes in homegrown produce, though the Northern Neck bank distributes some direct donations from farms in season; there’s nothing equivalent serving Mathews County. A food bank is not very visible to the public; it’s difficult to make it all work with volunteers, even with paid coordinators, and a lot of people depend on it. That said, those of us who have less time to give can still make a big contribution in the local soup kitchens and pantries run in all those church basements etc. where much of this food is finally distributed, and through the church donations that help pay for it (even at food bank prices it’s not without cost).

  5. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    Among the problems in Richmond is that hardly any public transit connects conveniently with the food desert areas.

    I think the closest of any major chain, a Kroger, still is not directly connected to many public housing areas.

    The city made a big deal about its PULSE rapid transit bus system that will run from white toast Willow Lawn and its shopping down Broad Street where it will go to Rocketts, another white toast area, and then back.

    Public housing such as Gilpin Court are still not connected. Many of the new jobs in the area are in the suburban counties, but there is virtually no public transit to them.

    Same is true in the suburbs. Chesterfield County is up to its lips in new food stores, except for Jeff Davis high way, a poor area. The only food store there is a Food Lion that is about a mile and a half walk along the busy highway with no sidewalks.

    One can whine about DC’s Metro but it does link suburbs with the city and vice versa.

    Richmond has yet to address transit.

    1. Re DC’s Metro, it does link them, but I have never seen a bag of groceries on a Metro train. What grocery store could afford to locate walkably close to a station?

  6. LarrytheG Avatar

    re: garden produce.

    The Fredericksburg Food bank has a garden and they get produce from area farmers and from what is left at the farmers markets – but in general it’s a drop in the bucket compared to what the super markets send over.

    There are LOTs of different ways a person can support the Food Bank and of course direct dollar donations are excellent ways for those who have less time to donate but people can volunteer directly at the Food Bank where incoming “stuff” has to be sorted and organized – to the local food pantries when volunteers can go to the food bank to get food to bring back to the church pantry, “packers” who build grocery bags to give out, or on the days the pantries is giving out food…

    But the biggest thing is – doing something for your own community … that’s what makes Food Banks “work” and it’s what causes Food Banks to atrophy and shrink or fail if they do not have adequate community support.

    so once in a while when we are riding those high horses grousing about welfare and entitlements – we can dismount, close the mouth, and contribute your own time or money rather than expecting the govt to help or blaming the folks who do need help.

  7. djrippert Avatar

    Jim Bacon writes …

    “What poor people really need first are stable jobs and higher incomes so they can afford to buy better food. Then they need to cultivate a taste for healthier cuisine. Otherwise, they’ll end up like a lot of better-off Americans, using their money to buy more expensive junk food.”

    I’ve never seen a straw man french kissing a legitimate thought before reading that.

    Poor people need more money to buy better food than the more expensive bad food they buy instead? How does more money induce you to spend less on food?

    Jim has fallen into liberal quackery. If only there were more money for the poor the bad food decisions would end. Really? So, if I gave 100 poor people $50 per week in cash they would stop buying overpriced Twinkies and start buying cheap broccoli instead?

    Now, I might believe that a lifetime in poverty leads to a sense of helplessness. That sense of helplessness leads to a “live for the moment” mentality. That “live for the moment” mentality leads to poor decision making – like spending more for bad food rather than less for good food.

    How does opening a grocery store with good food change that? If the Koreans thought the people would buy broccoli they would stock broccoli.

    As much as the Obamas frustrated me I always thought Michelle was on the right track with the school lunch ideas. Serve nutritious food to youngsters and two good things happen. First, the kiddies are less likely to be obese. Second, they will start to like the nutritious food.

    Once in a while I go back to Charlottesville for some reason. When I went to school at UVA I ate at least 10 meals a week at the White Spot. Sausage gravy with eggs for breakfast, meat loaf for lunch, a double Gusburger (double cheeseburger with a fried egg on top) with fries for dinner. Regular Coke with free refills with every meal (they didn’t serve beer). Now when I go back I can barely stomach one meal over a long weekend. I always wonder how I ate so much of that stuff. Somewhere along the way my tastes changed. I’d rather eat collard greens than french fries any day. Grapes beat sausage grave any day. I didn’t get any smarter I just got accustomed to eating better food until I began to like better food. Everything except Mike & Ike’s. Damn those Mike & Ike’s. I could eat them by the bushel (with a shovel).

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