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Growing Up Hungry
Atlantic City resident Joyce Williams loads her three young children in the car each week and heads to her supermarket to buy fresh fruits and vegetables for them.
It’s not a short trip — nine miles to her preferred store, ShopRite in Galloway Township.
The family has the means and the transportation to keep her children’s diets from depending on what’s inside the numerous corner stores and bodegas spread throughout Atlantic City, but many others don’t have that option.
“I have thought it’s totally inconvenient to have to travel that far,” said Williams, 36.
Williams lives in a “food desert,” a government definition that measures poverty and proximity to markets that offer healthy food. In urban areas like Atlantic City, it means being at least one mile away from a supermarket or large grocery store.
Atlantic City has neither.
Simply put, businesses may not find it profitable to build grocery stores in predominantly low-income areas, and even if they opened in those neighborhoods, studies show people might not come, anyway.
But there are some efforts to at least relieve the food desert problem.
A supermarket chain in Philadelphia is using a new model to bring healthier food to low-income areas, and creating reasons apart from food for people to go there.
The owner of five Atlantic City markets diversified his offerings of vegetables, fruit and fresh meat.
Mom-and-pop groceries in Vineland are making an effort to display fresh fruit more prominently.
There are food deserts in parts of all four southern New Jersey counties, where the easiest options may be foods high in fat, sodium and sugar — all of which can lead to obesity, diabetes and heart disease over time.
Brown’s Super Stores operates 13 ShopRites, eight of which are in low-income food deserts in Philadelphia.
Company President Jeffrey Brown said he decided to open the stores 12 years ago after attending an event at which representatives from The Food Trust and the United Way told of decreased life expectancies in food deserts.
“It didn’t seem like any of my peers in the business had an interest in it,” Brown said. “I thought it was a good thing to do from a business and societal interest.”
Still, much of the research on solving food desert issues in urban areas indicates that just making fresh food more available can’t solve the problem. Some of the obstacles to be overcome include education levels, ethnic eating traditions and income.
Brown’s ShopRite on Fox Street straddles Philadelphia’s Allegheny West and Nicetown neighborhoods.
The store, located in a shopping center surrounded by distressed homes and housing projects and vacant and crumbling factories, opened in August 2013 after five years of planning. It was the first time the neighborhoods had a full supermarket in 20 years.
The store was busy on a recent visit, with many customers buying products geared toward their ethnic and religious heritages. Fresh produce sales are climbing, Brown said. The supermarket also pushes healthier in-store grilled chicken.
But perhaps the real key to success is Brown’s idea that the supermarket should offer more than just food. The Fox Street store has a health clinic, a counseling service and a credit union. Store employees will help people pay bills online. There are also two community rooms that residents use free of charge to plan events such as community cleanups.
The ShopRite may be 72,000 square feet, but Brown wants it to feel like a neighborhood grocery.
Necole Dingle is a 30-year-old Nicetown resident who said the supermarket is a long-awaited benefit for the neighborhood.
“It makes us feel like we’re being heard,” she said of the store’s community outreach. “The store is really talking to us.”
Sammy Nammour knows from personal experience the importance of eating fresh fruit and vegetables.
Nammour, 26, weighed 420 pounds in 2009.
He dropped to 275 pounds through healthy eating, working out and going to the gym.
That’s why it is especially important to Nammour to offer a variety of fruits and vegetables as the group manager of five Cedar Food Market stores in Atlantic City.
“When it came to eating better, it felt better (immediately). It affects your whole mood, your health,” he said.
Even though the Cedar Food Markets are not big enough to be considered large grocery stores, he started to diversify their fruit and vegetable offerings a year ago.
“Before we had only apples, oranges and bananas, for example. Potatoes and onions were the only vegetables we had,” Nammour said. “Now, you go to any store, and they will have the heads of lettuce, the tomatoes. ... They have cucumbers at some locations.”
Nammour hopes to spread the fresh meat cut at the Baltic Avenue location to the other four stores either through packaging, refrigeration or both.
“Mind you, it’s not a supermarket, so all the fruits and vegetables aren’t available,” Nammour said. “What I realized by managing the stores is, there are not many options for people to buy groceries.”
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The first thing customers see when they enter the Vasquez & Diaz grocery store is a display of apples, green bananas, avocados and other fresh fruits and vegetables.
Shelves have stickers outlining good and not-so-good calorie contents and sodium levels for prepared foods. The meat counter has labels advocating lean choices.
The Park Avenue store is one of 26 mom-and-pop groceries participating in Live Healthy Vineland, an ongoing effort funded by a $1.3 million grant from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to get residents to eat healthier foods.
Store co-owner Miguel Diaz estimates his healthier food inventory not only grew by about 10 percent in two years, but customers are increasingly buying those products.
“We want our customers to eat better,” said Diaz. “We even moved them to another place so people could find (those products.)”
The program is now trying to quantify Live Healthy Vineland’s efforts, said Millie Irizarry, community relations liaison for the Vineland Health Department.
Irizarry says the department realizes the program won’t work if it only involves stocking stores with healthy food.
The department goes into local elementary schools to teach younger children about healthy eating and nutrition, she said. The effort also stresses that students should discuss healthy eating with their parents, she said.
That effort is particularly important in the city’s Hispanic neighborhoods, where most of the participating stores are located, and where many of the residents speak only Spanish, she said.
“They are bilingual,” Irizarry said of the students. “They will go home and teach what they learned in school to their parents.”
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