In many urban neighborhoods, healthy foods aren't readily available. Residents must either leave the neighborhood to shop for groceries or turn to fast food outlets and convenience stores, which contributes to the high rates of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease these communities face.
Redevelopment agencies recognize that access to a variety of healthy foods is a vital part of livable communities. In fact, an absence of grocery stores is one of the conditions for declaring blight. But it can be difficult to bring full-service grocers to urban neighborhoods, which rarely have vacant sites big enough for new stores. Developers and grocery chains also have to be convinced that locating in these areas is a good investment. Redevelopment agencies can identify potential sites, help build political support, and provide financing for new stores. They can also demonstrate the buying power of people living in redevelopment project areas and counteract negative assumptions about crime and neighborhood economic conditions.
Yet given the difficulty, expense, and time involved in bringing full-service grocery stores to underserved neighborhoods, redevelopment agencies are finding new ways to improve access to healthy foods. Some are providing the technical and financial support that community advocates need to establish farmers’ markets and community gardens. To make these efforts work, redevelopment agencies have to build closer ties with local organizations and community members.
New thinking about potential partners
Redevelopment agencies and other advocates are also beginning to think of liquor stores and bodegas as potential partners, rather than part of the problem. With help from redevelopment, public health professionals, community groups, and industry experts, store owners can shift their offerings from junk food and liquor to fresh produce and a wider range of groceries. Thor Kaslofsky, redevelopment project manager with the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency, says a major benefit of this approach is that it can make better food available without taking business away from existing stores. "One core principle of redevelopment is to look at existing tenants and residents and make sure we don't drive them out,” he says. “It's a big opportunity."
Corner store conversions require redevelopment agencies to go beyond the facade improvements they usually fund. Because store owners operate on thin margins, they can rarely afford to make the infrastructure changes necessary to stock produce and other fresh foods. Redevelopment agencies can offer low-interest loans to help owners finance refrigeration units and new displays, for example, but this kind of grant may be seen as a gift to the business owner. And infrastructure improvements alone aren't enough.
"Redevelopment has to think more creatively about how projects work and get more deeply involved with the owner,” Kaslofsky says. “It's not just about writing a check." Store owners need training to buy and store produce to prevent spoilage, something that isn't a problem with bags of chips and cookies. Redevelopment can't provide this kind of technical assistance alone; other government agencies, community-based organizations, and even industry consultants can offer needed expertise.
Meanwhile, for a corner store conversion to be successful, the community’s perception of the store must change, and public health advocates are uniquely positioned to help redevelopment agencies engage the community to promote the healthier food choices available. Several health departments around the country have created “social marketing” campaigns aimed at corner store markets: in New York City, for example, the Healthy Bodegas Initiative not only creates incentives for store owners to stock more nutritious foods but also promotes new items like lowfat milk and vegetables and teaches customers about nutrition. Comprehensive, cooperative approaches like this offer a model for how redevelopment agencies can help store owners successfully shift to healthier food options.