Philadelphia Food Desert Study: Dramatic Increase in Healthy Food Options

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Urban access to food

April 15, 2015; Next City

NPQ has often covered the topic of urban food deserts, those areas where residents have only limited access to grocery stores, and may have to travel some distance—often by public transportation—to buy produce and other fresh ingredients. From food-stamp woes to experiments with nonprofit supermarkets and ideas for selling produce in convenience stores, food deserts have captured our attention and that of health advocates and lawmakers across the country. As reported in Next City, the tide at last appears to be turning in Philadelphia, and important lessons have been learned there that may inform efforts to improve access to fresh food in other cities.

The Reinvestment Fund (TRF), a Philadelphia-based community development financial institution, last week reported a 56 percent drop between 2005 and 2013 in city residents without access to healthy food options. During those years, TRF invested $74 million in full- and limited-service grocers in the city. Much of that money supported the Pennsylvania Fresh Food Financing Initiative, through the Food Trust, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit with national and international outreach. The study released by TRF shows a net increase of 48 percent in the number of full- service groceries, “reflecting economic and attitudinal shifts.” Residents in North and West Philadelphia saw the greatest gains in access to supermarkets; the study counted only stores with annual sales of at least $2 million, which have been shown to consistently offer the greatest variety at the lowest prices.

And while the results are impressive, some small pockets of the city remain underserved. Don Hinkle-Brown, CEO of TRF, said that after seeing the results of the study, “We weren’t quite dancing on the tabletops, but we got pretty close.”

Among the lessons learned, Hinkle noted, was that the biggest barrier for grocers was an unfounded perception that there was no spending power in the communities that lacked supermarkets. Other challenges included workforce readiness—“familiarity with cash registers, financial literacy, customer service engagement.” Hinkle said some grocers spent up to nine months training staff before they opened.

Statewide, the Pennsylvania Fresh Food Financing Initiative involved 88 fresh-food retail projects and created or retained 5,000 jobs.

TRF is now investing less in fresh-food access in Philadelphia, and more in other cities struggling with food deserts, hoping to apply the lessons learned in the City of Brotherly Love to close the gap on access to fresh, affordable food. –Eileen Cunniffe