Posted by Tyra Fennell in Blog, Uncategorized on October 19, 2014
Many of us live in neighborhoods that have ready access to healthy foods and often view residents in food deserts with judging eyes for their poor healthy food choices. But do these residents actually have a choice?
Food deserts are geographic areas where affordable and nutritious food is difficult to obtain, particularly for those without access to an automobile. In a food desert you would be hard pressed to find fresh strawberries, grapes or produce. Children in these areas have often never seen fresh fruits and vegetables until they are able to leave their neighborhood. If you live in a food desert you are additionally more likely to die and suffer from diet related conditions such as diabetes and heart disease. In some of these communities, you cannot find one or two vegetables and when you do, the price is inflated or they are canned and packed with sodium.
I wanted to gain a better understanding about pricing in areas labeled food deserts and compare them to neighborhoods with ready access to a variety of grocery store options. So, what did I discover when I ventured into three major stores in San Francisco: Safeway in the Mission District, Whole Foods in Potrero Hill and Super Save in Bayview Hunter’s Point? I asked a friend to provide me with a random list of grocery items, including ice cream, cheese nips, peanut butter, Cheerios cereal, spaghetti, 2% Milk and whole grain bread. I also noted items labeled as WIC approved foods. I took the cheapest food price per item in each store. The following chart lists my findings.
FOOD ITEM SAFEWAY *WHOLE FOODS SUPER SAVE 1/2 gallon of ice cream $2.99 $5.99 $6.99 1 box of cheese nips $1.50 $2.99 $5.49 1 jar of peanut butter $2.00 $5.49 $3.79 (WIC) 1 box of Cheerios $2.99 $3.00 $4.99(WIC) 1 pack of spaghetti $0.99 $1.19 $0.99 1 gallon of 2% Milk $3.99 $3.99 $4.49 (WIC) 1 loaf of whole grain bread $2.49 $4.69 $3.29 (WIC)
So what does this all mean?
I looked at pricing between Whole Foods and Super Save. The price of ice cream was particularly troubling, Whole Foods ice cream, labeled100% organic listed its ice cream at $5.99 while Super Save, whose ice cream was labeled as “ice milk” was a dollar more expensive at a whopping $6.99. The quality was clearly worse but the price higher. How can Super Save be more expensive than Whole Foods again? I want to be fair to stores in challenged communities so I also took into account the additions to their bottom line which may justify slight inflation such as higher insurance premiums due to higher crime rates, leading to the need to hire additional personnel including security guards.
WIC is a federal assistance program for healthcare and nutrition of low-income pregnant women, breastfeeding women, and infants and children under the age of five. Many USDA approved food outlets for government subsidized foods like WIC items include gas stations, liquor stores, dollar stores and other fridge providers as medium grocery stores that accept EBT cards. The foods they sell in these approved sites are sub par at best. Many sell can foods, packaged noodles and sugary beverages. Super Save was the only grocery store that identified its WIC approved items and charged a premium cost most likely because the government picks up the tab. Whole Foods does not sell WIC items.
There is not one single cause of food deserts and not one single solution however there is a path to a food oasis. One idea is to drive resources to communities based on health data and supporting organizations such as the South East Food Guardians who are working with existing grocery store merchants to empower them to provide healthier choices. When quantitative health data is used to drive resources, the result is equitable distribution of healthy food and the reduction of health related illnesses. In Chicago, for example, Mayor Rahm Emanuel has made battling the impact of food deserts a priority. The administration has collected vital information and data on food deserts, including lists of grocery stores, interactive maps of these stores locations, and raw data that outlines the existing neighborhoods with diet related health issues. By redirecting city resources utilizing this data, Chicago has seen significant positive outcomes. I say let’s replicate this model here in San Francisco so residents don’t have to look to USDA approved liquor stores for their nutritional needs.