Food Deserts: Philly’s fight for affordable fresh food

In 1942, as World War II food ra­tion­ing ramped up and gro­cery shelves emp­tied, M.F.K. Fish­er wrote a wry, prac­tic­al little book called How to Cook a Wolf. The wolf she meant was the one at the door—and with tips for frugal dishes and a chapter titled, with grim de­term­in­a­tion, “How to Keep Alive,” Fish­er helped war­time Amer­ic­ans unite in fa­cing the real­it­ies of food in­sec­ur­ity to­geth­er. “Use as many fresh things as you can, al­ways, and then trust to luck,” she wrote.

Walk the abund­ant halls of the Read­ing Ter­min­al Mar­ket or browse the bounty of the Head­house Square Farm­ers’ Mar­ket, and you might be for­giv­en for think­ing that the wolf has long since aban­doned Phil­adelphia. The in­genu­ity of chefs and mix­o­lo­gists and food-truck op­er­at­ors has brought us in­to the ranks of Amer­ica’s best food cit­ies, to hear the Wash­ing­ton Post, Travel + Leis­ure, Za­gat and many oth­ers tell it; gour­mets, ve­gans, and glu­ten-free pa­leo di­eters all find plenty of op­tions here. Yet, amid all this culin­ary in­nov­a­tion, a stag­ger­ing one-fourth of Phil­adelphi­ans struggle with hun­ger and food in­sec­ur­ity, ac­cord­ing to the Hun­ger Co­ali­tion.

The wolf is at the doors of too many row­houses—but this wolf is a dif­fer­ent spe­cies than the one that stalked the city dur­ing World War II. For one thing, war ra­tion­ing was more or less uni­ver­sal; the sac­ri­fice was by no means equal, but it was cer­tainly shared. Today, though, in­come in­equal­ity has skyrock­eted—great­er Phil­adelphia is now the na­tion’s second most un­equal urb­an area, ac­cord­ing to a 2015 study. Lux­ury and poverty ex­ist side by side here.

What’s more, war­time cooks could eas­ily buy or grow pro­duce—what they lacked was “lux­ury” items like but­ter, sug­ar, and meat. Today’s food sys­tem is in­dus­tri­al, on the oth­er hand. Mass-pro­duced foods, their taste bulked up with fat, salt, sug­ar, and ar­ti­fi­cial fla­vor­ings, are now what’s cheap—and, in much of the city, far easi­er to buy than fresh, un­pro­cessed foods. You can find bagged snacks, fast food, and mi­crowave­able meals at every corner store, but for many res­id­ents—es­pe­cially those who rely on pub­lic trans­it—gro­cery stores are hard to come by, let alone the butchers, bakers, and pro­duce stands that were neigh­bor­hood staples in Fish­er’s day. Areas with low su­per­mar­ket ac­cess—some­times called “food deserts”—still dot the city map; statewide; more than two mil­lion Pennsylvani­ans lack ac­cess to fresh food.

At Fat Mom’s Lunch­eon­ette, in a low-su­per­mar­ket-ac­cess sec­tion of Port Rich­mond, a few green pep­pers, ba­na­nas, onions, to­ma­toes and pep­pers is offered along­side the deli meats. What doesn’t sell is used to make pre­pared food in the kit­chen, and prices are high enough (pota­toes are $1.25 each!) and se­lec­tion small enough to de­ter all but a few neigh­bors in need.

Res­id­ents aren’t just deal­ing with out-of-reach stores and rising prices—they’re also strug­gling to work mul­tiple jobs or patch “gig eco­nomy” work to­geth­er, find re­li­able and af­ford­able child care, and ob­tain hous­ing with ad­equate kit­chen fa­cil­it­ies. All of that has a big im­pact on what and wheth­er fam­il­ies cook. Yet, too of­ten, the ser­i­ous health prob­lems that come with a lack of ac­cess to healthy food are framed in terms of in­di­vidu­al de­cisions; low-in­come people just need to “make re­spons­ible choices,” we’re told. This sort of pa­ter­nal­ist­ic head-pat­ting was, for ex­ample, a com­mon ar­gu­ment in fa­vor of the eco­nom­ic­ally re­gress­ive soda tax, which tar­gets soda rather than the sug­ary bever­ages pre­ferred by middle-class con­sumers.

De­velopers of­ten op­er­ate on a sim­il­ar lo­gic—as­sum­ing, for in­stance, that gro­cery stores in low-in­come areas won’t be prof­it­able be­cause res­id­ents won’t buy fresh foods. That’s wrong, ac­cord­ing to Ju­lia Ko­prak, seni­or as­so­ci­ate at the Food Trust, a non­profit or­gan­iz­a­tion that aims to im­prove food ac­cess in Phil­adelphia, in­clud­ing work­ing to loc­ate gro­cery stores and farm­ers’ mar­kets in neigh­bor­hoods that need them and part­ner­ing with gov­ern­ment food as­sist­ance pro­grams to provide farm­ers’ mar­ket ac­cess and cook­ing classes. While there isn’t much hard data, she says, “What we hear an­ec­dot­ally is from gro­cers in un­der­served areas is that their pro­duce sales are com­par­able to or above sales in sub­urb­an areas. There’s a myth that people won’t buy fruits and ve­get­ables, but if you listen to the com­munity about their needs and of­fer a range of foods that’s af­ford­able and cul­tur­ally ap­pro­pri­ate, people ab­so­lutely do buy and cook those foods.”

The Food Trust and sev­er­al oth­er groups have re­cently brought health care pro­viders and edu­cat­ors in­to the pro­cess. St. Chris­toph­er’s Hos­pit­al for Chil­dren has doc­tors write pre­scrip­tions for fresh fruits and ve­get­ables; pa­tients and com­munity mem­bers with SNAP be­ne­fits can also sign up for the Farms to Fam­il­ies pro­gram, which provides low-cost weekly pro­duce boxes year-round. In the Phil­adelphia Pub­lic Schools, nu­tri­tion edu­cat­ors vis­it classrooms to con­duct fruit and ve­get­able tast­ings as part of the Fresh Fruit and Ve­get­able Pro­gram, a USDA fed­er­al pro­gram be­ing pi­loted in sev­er­al states. Ele­ment­ary-aged kids try new foods, learn about nu­tri­tion, and re­ceive re­cipes to take home.

Much pro­gress was made between 2004 and 2010 un­der the aus­pices of the Fresh Food Fin­an­cing Ini­ti­at­ive, an in­nov­at­ive Pennsylvania state pro­gram that made grants to re­tail­ers of all sizes. As well as help­ing to open new stores, in­clud­ing the Fresh Gro­cer on North Broad and the Shop­Rite on Park­side Av­en­ue, the pro­gram’s Healthy Corner Store Ini­ti­at­ive brought re­fri­ger­at­ors and fresh pro­duce to more than 600 corner stores around the city, so the staples of healthy meals are offered along­side the usu­al chips and ci­gar­ettes. Re­new­ing FF­FI would go a long way to­ward con­tinu­ing to ad­dress what is still a ser­i­ous prob­lem, says Ko­prak.

It’s hard to track the im­pact of such pro­grams on adults’ health out­comes, Ko­prak says, be­cause dis­ease rates change slowly. Chil­dren’s health, on the oth­er hand, can be tracked more quickly. “One thing we’ve seen that’s pretty ma­jor is a re­duc­tion in child­hood obesity in Phil­adelphia by five per­cent,” she adds, cit­ing a study by the city’s De­part­ment of Pub­lic Health over five years of FF­FI pro­gress.

“To as­sert and re­as­sert our dig­nity in the face of poverty,” as Fish­er put it, “is to nour­ish ourselves with all pos­sible skill, del­ic­acy, and ever-in­creas­ing en­joy­ment.” Most people want to eat well, giv­en the chance—so be­fore you cri­ti­cize your neigh­bors, ask how you can help ex­pand ac­cess to fresh food every­where in the city.

Twit­ter: @GreyEd­it­ing

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