Richmond’s Food Desert a Tough Nut to Crack

Photo credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch

by James A. Bacon

It is part of the liberal/progressive catechism that inner city neighborhoods across the United States, including Virginia, are afflicted by “food deserts” — large swaths of territory lacking access to stores selling fresh fruit, vegetables and other healthy foods. This deprivation is typically seen as a failure of the free-market system that requires remedy.

Seeking to do some good, Richmond philanthropist Steve Markel financed construction of a grocery store in the heart of the city’s East End — The Market @ 25th — and launched it to great fanfare a half year ago. The store served multiple laudable ends. It anchored a mixed-use development including 42 apartments, retail space, and office space in a depressed part of the city. It opened with 98 jobs, creating employment opportunities for the East End’s poor. And, most notably, it provided a source of fruit, vegetables, and healthy food.

Now we hear from the Richmond Times-Dispatch that the noble endeavor is encountering difficulties. The independent grocer has suffered millions of dollars in operational losses. Through layoffs and attrition, the staff has shrunk by a quarter since opening. Perhaps most discouraging of all, many of the store’s hoped-for poor African-American customers say the prices are too high and see the story as the spear-head of gentrification.

The Market @ 25th may yet survive. Markel has promised to continue supporting the enterprise as long as its losses decrease over time. Store managers are reaching out to dozens of “partner organizations” in the neighborhood for feedback. And management is making adjustments. To boost foot traffic, the store now sells cigarettes (not exactly a health product), and has added a “dollar aisle” — right across from the wine selection.

But the store still battles a negative perception in the neighborhood. Developer/operator Norm Gold summarized a widespread view: “The perception was that … the store was strictly here because gentrification is coming this way and the store is going to be profitable to take advantage of the gentrification.”

Here is the unspoken dilemma. Inner-city residents have different tastes and different price points in food than middle- and professional-class gentrifiers. They can’t afford the high prices of a small, independent store in which patrons are paying for the convenience of not driving several miles to Wal Mart or Food Lion. According to the T-D article, the average customer spent $21 in the first few weeks of the month. The figure decreases to $15 toward the end of the month as food stamp )Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits run out. Question: If a poor customer has $21 to spend, how likely are they to pay $20 for a bottle of cabernet sauvignon?

Price aside, poor people don’t share the same obsession with health food. The reason that convenience stores (in the inner city and elsewhere) sell junk food, soft drinks, and cheap starchy foods is that they are most in demand. Kale and quinoa are not.

Then there may be a more subtle problem: Many poor African-Americans may not appreciate it when white people tell them to alter their diets. There’s a PhD dissertation just waiting to be written on the white foodie movement in the inner city as a form of cultural imperialism.

If you want to transform the food desert, you have to do two things. First, you have to change peoples’ tastes and eating habits, a very difficult thing to do — as anyone who has ever tried to change their diet in order to lose weight and improve heart health can tell you. Second, you have to provide healthy foods at a price point poor people can afford.

If you want poor people to start eating healthier, teach them in schools, cooking classes, and church programs how to buy, prepare and cook healthy meals that appeal to their taste buds. Then spend more philanthropic dollars figuring out how to provide healthy foods at a price point they can afford. Finally, recognize that change needs to come from within the communities. If the change agents are perceived as do-gooder whites imposing their own tastes and values on the community, they won’t get far.

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19 responses to “Richmond’s Food Desert a Tough Nut to Crack

  1. Have you actually been to the Markel store and see gobs of health food and $20 bottles of wine? Or are you assuming based on your imagination.

    • No, I have not been to the store.

      But I say the store served health food because serving healthy food was one of the announced intentions of the store.

      As for $20 bottles of wine, here’s photo of the wine rack:

      It’s very similar to the arrangement you see at most stores, with the cheaper bottles at the bottom of the rack and the more expensive bottles on the top.

  2. Pingback: Opinion: It's Time We Talk About The Market - CHPN

  3. From what i can see, there are $6 bottles if “Barefoot.” No beluga caviar. Nice try

    • Probably true, but the economics of the business are clear: The profits are on the high end merchandise, the specialty, ‘impulse” or special interest items, with very low margins on the basics or the big “family packs.” Some of those are clear loss leaders in the big chain stores. The modern supermarket approach is a challenge in those kinds of neighborhoods with customers on tight budgets or SNAP, or they would already be there. Myself I’m trying to be dairy free as an experiment and those non-dairy substitutes are ridiculously expensive!

  4. Not that it matters but when i lived in brooklyn we had wonderful ethnic food stores, especially italian and middle eastern, and truly horrible groceries. Diversity was block by block.

  5. I’ve tried to support the store when in the area for work (renovation carpenters have been very busy in Church Hill and Union Hill lately). It isn’t an easy thing to do. The selection of food (and cleaning supplies) is weird. And it isn’t cheap. It’s a very nice-looking store with a friendly staff and happy customers (never had a sense of gentrification woe). I think that’s some perverted projection of whomever wrote the report. The neighborhood is excited about new options and the beautification of their neighborhood. I’m sure some are apprehensive about being priced out but they are pushing shopping carts with pride and smiles at the moment.

    My usual store, the Kroger in Carver, serves the same type of population. Every day in there is like the day before Thanksgiving. It has a huge selection (on health and junk food) and is inexpensive and predictable (you know that they will have everything you need to make a stir fry or pork roast). A full service super market would be just as crowded on 25th Street I presume.

  6. Not sure how Steve Markel made his money but if he did not from grocery/retail markets – I suspect he’s going to fail.

    stores serve the demographic market in proximity – not the other way around.

    Any presumption that poor folks have worse eating habits that richer folks desperately needs some verification and even if true – you can’t serve someone something they do not want – even if YOU think it’s good for THEM! What an arrogant and imperious attitude!

    Just FYI – up Fredericksburg way – there is something called a food bank and every day they receive produce and break from areas stores and it’s free for the taking… and we grab our share and distribute it to the “poor” – no charge – all they have to do is show up and confirm their eligibility and they share rides so 2, 3 or more get their allotment of food and cram it in the trunk and then return to their homes in that proverbial food desert!

    Much to my initial surprise – I’ve see our clients not only at Walmart but at Giant and Wegmans – turns out that our food pantry – allows them to stretch their food dollar further. Whatever they don’t get from us – they go buy – but again – we give them free produce… and bread so those two items are very much available to anyone who wants it and the price is right!

  7. Gee, a food bank. What a great idea. So glad Richmond has a huge one, Larry…. Supplemented by plenty of other operations, most private. As I’ve mentioned before, almost 40 years ago the editors sent me out looking for real hunger in the Roanoke Valley and I actually found a very successful safety net. Didn’t write the story I was sent to write (yes, America, some editors decide what they want to write and seek the facts to fit.)

    Spencer writes about the Kroger in Carver and by that he may mean the one on Lombardy. Lived two blocks from that store for six years and was in there often, if not as my main source. But along with the lower income folks, that store has a mob of VCU student customers and right across Broad all the Fan residents. I’m not sure the same store would work a block from Gilpin Court.

    • Right, I was aware of the Richmond Food Bank but wanted to make the point that community churches can easily connect with the food bank to bring produce, bread and lots of other nutritious food to their communities as we do up our way, and we are but one of several dozen scattered throughout our region.

      Food Pantries are easy and a very effective way to ameliorate food deserts – of which I am a skeptic is the age of the automobile and regional food banks/pantries.

      We’re being overrun with “do-gooders”!!!!

  8. So what is Jim’s point? Screw poor people and let them starve on their yo yos? He did not actually report this—just the usual right wing meme

  9. What was my point? Re-read the final paragraph:

    “If you want poor people to start eating healthier, teach them in schools, cooking classes, and church programs how to buy, prepare and cook healthy meals that appeal to their taste buds. Then spend more philanthropic dollars figuring out how to provide healthy foods at a price point they can afford. Finally, recognize that change needs to come from within the communities. If the change agents are perceived as do-gooder whites imposing their own tastes and values on the community, they won’t get far.”

    • Jim – why do we want “poor” people to eat any “healthier” than other folks?

      Isn’t that a pretty condescending point of view?

      “poor people” are no different than other people when it comes to food and obesity, healthy/unhealthy lifestyles…

  10. Poor eating habits drive obesity. Until 1990 there was no correlation between income and obesity in the US. Starting in 1990 and increasingly over time poorer people have been getting fatter than richer people. Why? High fructose corn syrup. That ingredient was first used in food in 1970. Today the average American consumes 60 pounds per year of the stuff.

    So, why would this adversely affect poorer people more than richer people? Cost. Sugar (sucrose) and HFCS are chemically similar and they affect metabolism in a similar manner. Both are bad for you. But HFCS has all but replaced sugar in drinks, snacks, etc. Factors in the rise of HFCS use include production quotas of domestic sugar, import tariffs on foreign sugar, and subsidies of U.S. corn, raising the price of sucrose and lowering that of HFCS, making it cheapest for many sweetener applications.

    Lower cost sweetener means more of it ends up in various processed foods like hamburger buns without raising the cost of the buns to an unacceptable level. It also means that foods sweetened with HFCS are relatively cheaper than other, healthier foods over time and cheaper than the pre-1970 versions of the food sweetened with sugar. Poor people are more price sensitive than wealthier people and foods sweetened with HFCS seem like good deals.

    Evil white people creating food deserts can only explain the correlation of obesity and poverty after 1990. Before that there was no correlation. Were food deserts invented in 1990?

    I assume there have been food deserts for a long time in the inner city but only an obesity correlation over the past 30 years. Something else is up.

  11. I’m not seeing the actual study and it’s data…

    this from the CDC:

    ” Analysis of data from the 2011–2014 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) examining the association between obesity and education and obesity and income among U.S. adults demonstrate that obesity prevalence patterns by income vary between women and men and by race/Hispanic origin. The prevalence of obesity decreased with increasing income in women (from 45.2% to 29.7%), but there was no difference in obesity prevalence between the lowest (31.5%) and highest (32.6%) income groups among men. Moreover, obesity prevalence was lower among college graduates than among persons with less education for non-Hispanic white women and men, non-Hispanic black women, and Hispanic women, but not for non-Hispanic Asian women and men or non-Hispanic black or Hispanic men. The association between obesity and income or educational level is complex and differs by sex, and race/non-Hispanic origin.”

    I do not think the basis premise asserted by that one study – is replicated by other studies.

    But even if it is – I think any idea that someone/we have to “teach” the poor how to eat “right” is treading on dangerous ground in terms of policy.

    The bigger problem is that poor folks do not have access to high quality health care – which is what counsels people to lose weight and have things like Diabetes effectively managed with ongoing care and prescription drugs. Once someone has Type II diabetes.. they have to have prescription drugs and continuous treatment to lose weight and keep their blood sugars under control.

    Talking down to them about their “bad” habits is not going to work and it will actually make things worse.

  12. Speaking of white patronization! Jim, you are so lucky to have LarryTheG and me around!

  13. The thing about her initiative – it was relentlessly ridiculed and criticized by the right as government telling me how to live, etc.

    So damned if you do and damned if you don’t!

    Apparently the “message” about this kind of stuff has to come from the right; if it comes from the left, it’s just more big government “interfeence”.

    I don’t think anyone – rich or poor is going to receive “advice” on how to control their weight or eat properly as a political message.

    If you want poor folks to deal with eating and weight issues – then give them access to the same type of medical care and advice that others have. Nothing changes behaviors than a Doc that is relentless on you to do something about your weight or smoking, etc…

    Now something I WOULD totally support – taxes on alcohol, cigarettes,drugs, and sweet/fast food that goes to pay for medical treatment for the maladies that result… with no mention of whether you are “poor”. Just make that care available to everyone – totally funded by taxes on those things.

  14. Boy this post has created some wandering about the topic bush.

    To one of the early comments by Larry, I think he gets partial credit for having stumbled inexorably into one truth:

    >>you can’t serve someone something they do not want – even if YOU think it’s good for THEM! What an arrogant and imperious attitude!

    A study conducted in Detroit found one of the reasons. A well-meaning, mostly white organization started a program that offered to plant free trees in devastated neighborhoods that were treeless. Local residents rejected the free trees at a surprising rate. Investigators wanted to know why and found, generally speaking, that residents had not been consulted about how the program would move forward, tree selection, etc, and they resented it. They also found that prior trees were not maintained by the city and caused a mess, so residents were reluctant to put them on the list of things they wanted.

    Can’t remember where I saw this article, but it it appeared sometime this last week.

  15. geeze Crazy – apparently I “stumble” onto the truth a lot here…!!!

    But heck – say you set up a wellness clinic in those “poor” areas where you offer medical help for weight or cigarettes or drugs or alcohol where the idea is to offer “help” rather than “advice” – and it comes from medical professionals and NOT political asshats… might work….

    but then the asshats would not be happy……… big problem…. cuz the asshats needed to denigrate the poor to start with….. it really wasn’t about “helping” them…

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