Can “resetting” corner stores change the way people eat?
What happens when there is food everywhere, but nothing to eat?
That’s the question that people living in San Francisco’s Tenderloin have asked for years. The downtown neighborhood counts more than 70 small corner stores in an area spanning less than half of a square mile, yet there is not one full-service grocery market within a mile of the community’s boundaries. (To see the neighborhood and hear from locals, watch the videoembedded at the top of this story.) Grape soda is omnipresent, grapes more elusive. Many of the stores sell alcohol and cigarettes more than food — and place their offerings accordingly, with Marlboro displays and coolers dominating prime front-of-store real estate. But for the nearly 20,000 low-income immigrants who live in the Tenderloin alongside seniors on fixed incomes and families struggling to get by, there is no real alternative. These San Franciscans can’t afford markets in nearby neighborhoods where shoppers don’t flinch at a $9 bottle of cold-pressed juice.
Neighborhoods like the Tenderloin are often referred to as “food deserts,” but an increasing number of public health experts say the popular moniker has it wrong. These experts propose a different term for these areas, which often claim the highest rates of obesity, chronic disease and alcohol abuse.
“It’s actually more accurate to call them food swamps,” says Susana Hennessey Lavery, an educator with San Francisco’s public health department, “because they are swamped with a lot of food, but not much that is healthy.”
Enter Healthy Retail SF, a program designed to help retailers in the Tenderloin and other high-poverty neighborhoods transform their markets into places that offer a variety of affordable and healthy food options. (To see a transformation unfold, watch thevideo at the top of page.) Modeled after a program first pioneered by the nonprofit Food Trust in Philadelphia, Healthy Retail SF aims to meet consumers and store owners where they are. “The program is like a stool with three legs,” explains Lavery. “The first leg is business operations, which includes how to have a business plan, use a POS[point-of-sale] system, how to stock and maintain produce. Because it’s not like alcohol and tobacco, it doesn’t just sit on a shelf. It needs to be handled every day, trimmed, watered, rotated.”