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Cities' Access to Fresh Food Worsens

Higher maintenance costs in urban areas have led to a serious lack of grocery stores for city dwellers. States and cities are working on ways to get them back.

Over the years, I’ve lived in a number of cities. While having access to good public transit was a must, so too was a neighborhood grocery store. Each time I moved, I never had a problem finding a place with a market in walking distance that offered fresh food.

It’s been more than 20 years since my last move, however, and when it comes to grocery stores in cities, the situation has changed. Forget about living in a city where virtually every neighborhood has a food store within walking distance or even a short commute. Now, health experts talk about "food deserts" where grocery stores are virtually nonexistent, McDonald’s are plentiful and fresh fruits and vegetables are scarce.

In March, the Massachusetts Public Health Association released a report showing the Bay State has one of the worst shortages in the nation of city supermarkets that offer fresh food. For an affluent and urban state like Massachusetts, which prides itself on the quality of its education and health-care system, the results are startling. For example, Lawrence, with a population of 70,000, has just two full-service grocery stores. The report also mentions how some city residents have to ride as many as three different buses to reach a grocery store.

The problem isn’t just about inconvenience. A number of studies have shown that people living in communities without a supermarket suffer disproportionately from obesity and other related health issues. In addition, opening and operating a supermarket in a city faces several hurdles. Training, security and maintenance costs are considerably higher in urban areas, according to a study conducted by The Reinvestment Fund, an organization that helps finance neighborhood revitalization.

To counter the disadvantages, health advocacy groups have been developing state-financed initiatives to attract supermarkets to underserved neighborhoods. The most notable success so far is the Pennsylvania Fresh Food Financing Initiative, which started in 2004 and used $30 million in state seed money to finance the development of nearly 70 supermarkets and fresh food outlets in urban and rural areas around the state. One Philadelphia-based grocery store operator found that his four new inner-city stores are as profitable as the ones he runs in the suburbs.

Other cities are taking notice. Houston, which has a ratio of one store for every 12,000 people, compared to the national average of one to 8,600 people, is seeking to set up a Texan version of Pennsylvania’s initiative. First lady Michelle Obama has also praised initiatives that put more grocery stores in cities, citing the health impact on children.

Funding for a $35 million federal program called the Healthy Food Financing Initiative, however, could be in trouble. Congress is looking at ways to reduce the budget deficit, and has threatened to cut the program, which also mirrors Pennsylvania’s effort. That would be a shame, say health food advocates, given the ever-growing need around the country for fresh food in city neighborhoods.

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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