ATLANTIC CITY — Every year, New Jersey produces hundreds of millions of pounds of produce from blueberries and eggplant to spinach and squash. The state is known for it’s agriculture contributions, but for residents of Atlantic City, finding fresh food can be difficult.
In fact, most of Atlantic City, north of Albany Avenue lives in a low-income, low-access area to food often called a “food desert,” according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Access Research Atlas.
Recognizing the need for better and more affordable access to good quality and nutritious food, the state and the city have been actively pursuing a supermarket in the city.
In August, the city announced that a ShopRite would be the likely tenant of the grocery store to be built on land near the Atlantic City Convention Center donated by the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority — a key goal in the initial report about revitalizing Atlantic City authored by Jim Johnson, special counsel to the governor.
“It could have a key impact on the health of residents and would make the city more attractive to potential newcomers,” the report reads.
But what does living in a food desert actually mean?
It doesn’t mean that there is no food available, experts said.
It’s true that residents in Atlantic City have access to a number of venues to purchase groceries: the city is dotted with corner stores and markets throughout, with the Cedar Food Market stores the most visible, and a Save-A-Lot on Atlantic and Kentucky avenues offers residents a slightly larger option.
The term food desert applies specifically to the lack of larger grocers. The USDA defines a food desert as a low-income census tract where a substantial number or share of residents has low access to a supermarket or large grocery store. Those types of stores are currently only available outside the city’s 48 blocks: the Acmes in Ventnor Heights or Brigantine or the Shoprites in Absecon or Egg Harbor Township, which also has a Walmart Supercenter.
“If you need something specific in food, you have to travel quite a distance,” said Sylvester Showell, president of the Westside Neighborhood Protective Association.
Once a month, Showell takes a bus to Philadelphia’s famous Reading Terminal. He returns with a suitcase stocked with fresh meat, enough to last until his next trip.
Showell makes the trek because of the low prices and high quality of the products, something he says he has looked for but cannot find in his hometown.
He relies on his own garden and a community garden he manages in his ward for fruit and vegetables and walks to the corner Cedar Mart for other items.
In addition to availability, economic factors also contribute to food access.
Each month, about 1,500 residents of Atlantic City visit soup kitchens partnered with the Community Food Bank of New Jersey — Southern Branch and 3,000 households participate in the organization’s food pantries scattered throughout the city.
Kimberly Arroyo, director of agency relations for the Southern Branch, said the food bank is likely only meeting 30% of the need in the city of about 38,000.
“Not even close to where we want to be,” she said.
Arroyo said they could reach more residents with more partners and more awareness, but there is also combating negative perceptions.
“In my experience, problems with access are families not wanting to go for help. Unfortunately, there’s a stigma with receiving help, and a lot of families they don’t want to have to experience that,” she said.
Valarie Mack, 55, who lives in the city’s 3rd Ward, said she often used the food pantries in the city and was unhappy with how she was treated.
“They weren’t paying attention, it was just, ‘We’re there for those hours, sign in, sign out,’” she said.
But recently, Mack has had exposure to healthier options after joining a summer program at AtlantiCare’s William Gormley Healthplex. The idea of going for help, she said, made her very anxious, and she had to overcome years of distrust.
“You’re so used to falling through the cracks, something good gave me so much anxiety until I realized it’s for real,” Mack said.
Through the summer program, she has learned about foods she used to never eat.
“Like the eggplant, I used to pass that up so much,” Mack said. “We’re substituting the ground beef for the turkey, they didn’t even know, turkey hot dogs.”
While living in a food desert can make accessing food more difficult, it can also impact physical and emotional health.
PBS Newshour, in a report that aired in 2011 discussing the socioeconomic impacts of food deserts, cited U.S. Department of Agriculture data showing “counties with the highest percentage of households living in food deserts (10% or more) had rates of adult obesity in 2008 that were a full nine percentage points higher than counties with the lowest percentage of households in food deserts (1% or fewer households).”
As pointed out in the Johnson report, Atlantic City has some of the worst public health outcomes in the state.
Obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes were immediate public health concerns cited in the Johnson report and health officials earlier this year also tied food access to healthy pregnancies as Atlantic City faces the state’s highest rate of black infant mortality.
Kate Cairns, assistant professor of childhood studies at Rutgers-Camden, said food access also has emotional benefits.
“If we think for many of us food is deeply important to our sense of self, how we connect to our history, our cultural identity with families and friends, so if food is a constant struggle, if it is a strain to simply meet our basic needs then think about the larger toll that has on our relationships and our identities,” she said.