Appearing in The Washington Post on July 13, 2006

Healthful Foods Not An Option For Many

Poorer Areas Lack Access, Report Says

By Robert Samuels

Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 13, 2006; Page DZ03

Jessica Jackson smells the waft of fried chicken from a fast-food restaurant as she walks down Benning Road. That's where she usually gets her dinner.

Jackson, 19, said she goes the local Popeyes more than she goes out to buy lettuce or milk. She's eight months pregnant, and the affordable restaurant is an easy walk. The nearest supermarket is more than a mile away. The local corner stores don't sell fresh food, she said. So she eats a lot of fast food.

A Food Research and Action Center report released last week suggests many people in low-income neighborhoods are making similar choices. Lacking easy access to nutritional foods, the report stated, those residents turn to the small grocers on the corner and fast-food spots to stanch their hunger.

But those places don't provide the staple products necessary for a balanced diet, said Kimberly Perry, director of D.C. Hunger Solutions. Her program, which coordinated the study, said convenience stores don't usually have healthful foods such as whole-wheat bread, skim milk or brown rice. Corner markets that do have those foods, Perry said, are usually more expensive than supermarkets farther away. Those limitations create areas of "community food insecurity," places where fresh and healthful food is not available to everyone.

The food disparity divides the District along race and class lines, Perry said.

There is one grocery store for every 12,000 people in Wards 2 and 3, according to the report. Those areas are majority white and more affluent.

The lower-income, majority-black neighborhoods aren't so fortunate. Ward 7 -- where Jackson lives -- and Ward 8 have one grocery store for every 70,000 people.

More research is needed in this field, Perry said, because only five of an estimated 300 corner markets participated in the survey. Still, Nazneen Ahmad, a nutritional programs specialist with the District's health department, said the limited results jibe with easily observable inventories in many small stores.

"The corner stores tend to be more expensive than the chain supermarkets," said Ahmad, who works with the District's Eat Smart/Move More program. "So we see people not eating healthier there because of cost and also not knowing about healthy food."

Corner markets are not really set up as primary spots to purchase food, said Lori Kim, who helps her family operate Demmie's Market in the 5000 block of Benning Road SE. Each week, Kim said, she sends an employee to buy about 10 heads of cabbage for $1 each at Shoppers Food Warehouse. Then she sells them for about $1.25 each, depending on the size.

"We just have them because we think it's good to have them, in case someone really needs it," she said. "But we wouldn't make a lot of money selling it."

Cracker boxes, potato chips and cleaning products fill the shelves of Kim's store. Packs of frozen vegetables and three packages of chicken are in a freezer in the back. There is another freezer near the cash register in the front -- it is full of popsicles.

Building a coalition of store owners who buy fresh produce could help reduce the costs of selling it, Perry said. That approach worked in Pennsylvania, she said, where the state government invests more than $20 million to bringing healthful food to underserved communities.

Pennsylvania's Food Trust program has been successful since its start in May 2004, said program spokesman David Adler. Eleven store owners in Philadelphia are in line to receive loans for more refrigerators to store fresher food, he said.

The grocers Jackson passes on her way to Popeyes aren't so sure that plan would work in the District.

The Dollar Plus Food Store, at 4837 Benning Rd. SE, used to carry potatoes and carrots, said manager Sara Adame. The food spoiled, and the store stopped selling it.

"We started to lose money when we sold vegetables," Adame said. "Chips, sweets, soda. That's all people seem to want to buy here."