Blog » food access
- February 4, 2013By Eli Zigas, Food Systems and Urban Agriculture Program Manager
The crowd of a few dozen people that spilled off the sidewalk at Lee’s Market on an overcast morning had gathered to celebrate. The occasion: the grand re-opening of the corner store with new offerings of fresh fruit, vegetables and an expanded selection of healthy grocery items.
The January 24 event marked the launch of the Healthy Corner Store project of the Southeast Food Access Working Group (SEFA). The community group’s Food Guardians, three staff members who work on a variety of food issues in the Bayview Hunters Point neighborhood, collaborated with the owners of Lee’s Market and Ford’s Grocery to increase the number of healthy products sold at each store. The initiative was inspired by a 2007 survey showing that residents were taking dollars outside of the community when they frequently traveled to other neighborhoods to buy groceries. SEFA believed that if those items were stocked in neighborhood retail locations, the local businesses would see increased sales and residents would have more convenient access to healthy food.
The change at Lee’s Market was clear and prominent. Limes, oranges and heads of lettuce were visible through the door. Oatmeal, bread and tortillas were on display in the front window. And while ramen noodles, candy bars and alcohol still had significant shelf space, tobacco advertising on the front door had been removed and the difference between the before-and-after photos on display at the launch event was striking.
The participation of the corner store business owners is a credit to their willingness to try out a new set of products, including perishables. In making the change, they received assistance from a coalition of city agencies and community groups. In addition to the outreach by Food Guardians, several city agencies — acting together under the umbrella of the Bayview Healthy Eating Active Living (HEAL) Zone and funded by a large grant from Kaiser Permanente — provided a mix of grants and loans to the two corner markets to cover the costs of technical assistance and equipment purchase. Initial signs indicates that the storeowner’s investment is paying off. One of the most important measures of success is whether customers will buy the new items. In the first week of offering produce, Lee’s Market sold out and placed another order with its produce distributor.
One of the distinguishing features of this initiative is its focus on working with resources already in the community rather than trying to recruit a retailer to move into the neighborhood. As one of the speakers at the launch put it, the project was an example of “change from the inside out.” While SEFA was involved in attracting full-scale grocer Fresh & Easy to the neighborhood, it has also focused significant attention on changing the offerings at existing retailers like Foods Co., Super Save and now corners stores. Other groups in the city are watching closely. Organizers in the Tenderloin have begun their own neighborhood assessment using the Food Guardian’s model and Supervisor Eric Mar has introduced legislation referencing SEFA’s work.
SEFA plans to evaluate the impact of its corner store initiative. While increasing access to fresh, healthy food is a clear improvement in terms of convenience and quality of life, the impact of this initiative, and others like it, in terms of affecting obesity, diabetes and other public health issues is not yet proven. Even so, it is clear that positive change, driven from within the neighborhood, is happening at two corner stores. And that is a milestone worth celebrating.
- October 18, 2012by Eli Zigas, Food Systems and Urban Agriculture Program Manager
San Francisco is known internationally for its celebration of food. The city can boast of top restaurants; nationally acclaimed grocers, bakers and butchers; a thriving fleet of food trucks; and bountiful farmers’ markets. But these food retailers are not distributed equally across the city. While San Franciscans in many neighborhoods can take a short walk or ride and find a greengrocer or supermarket, in some parts of the city, food access is more difficult.
The Department of Public Health has mapped the distribution of existing food retailers as part of its Sustainable Communities Index program. The results show that a number of neighborhoods — including Treasure Island, the Tenderloin, Hunters Point and Visitacion Valley, among others — have limited to no fresh food retail options.
While a full service grocery store is never more than a couple of miles away in a city as dense as San Francisco, the lack of quality, fresh food access within a convenient distance has both quality of life and public health impacts. Week to week, having to travel further for groceries – whether by foot, transit or car – takes up time and money. This travel is an additional cost that few San Franciscans would enjoy, but it’s especially difficult for low-income residents, many of whom live in neighborhoods with the least convenient access to fresh food.
In addition to the quality of life impacts, a neighborhood’s access to fresh food is also strongly connected to the health of the neighborhood. As Policy Link, a national non-profit organization pointed out in its Grocery Gap report, proximity to fresh food is strongly correlated with levels of obesity, diabetes and other diet-related diseases. Though recent articles in the Washington Post and New York Times have questioned how much the introduction of a new food retailer into a neighborhood positively impacts public health, food access advocates have in turn raised questions about the studies that are cited and pointed out that providing fresh food retail outlets is only one part (albeit an important part) of a campaign to improve diet-related public health.
Recognizing the importance of food access, Supervisor Eric Mar introduced legislation on September 25 to better coordinate the city’s efforts on the issue. The ordinance would establish a Healthy Food Retailer Incentives Program housed in the Office of Economic and Workforce Development. On the supply side of the equation, the program would be responsible for coordinating the city’s food access initiatives within a “one-stop shop” that links new or existing small food retail businesses (those less than 20,000 square feet in size) with incentives and technical support ranging from permit expediting and design assistance to grants and loans. The program is also structured to encourage convenience stores and small grocers to reduce the amount of shelf space they dedicate to tobacco and alcohol products. On the demand side, the legislation calls for the new program to pair its support for businesses with community engagement (like that piloted by the Food Guardians and the Southeast Food Access Working Group.)
Promoting healthy food retail has the additional potential benefit of providing economic development. Studies have shown that grocery stores and thriving corner stores can not only provide jobs but can also serve as anchor retailers that lift the fortunes of nearby businesses.
Even with a new coordinated focus from a city agency, addressing food access will not be easy. The changes will take money: retailers investing in new store designs and products, and consumers buying enough fresh food to make it pencil out for the retailer. And gauging the impact will take time. Supervisor Mar’s legislation has energized conversation about what the city can do to better address food access, and SPUR will continue to track the proposal’s development.
- August 21, 2012by Eli Zigas, Food Systems and Urban Agriculture Program Manager
For more than three decades, San Francisco's Heart of the City Farmers’ Market has been operating at UN Plaza, along Market Street and within sight of City Hall. The market is unique not only for its central location but also for its dedication to offering fresh produce to low-income customers living in the nearby Tenderloin neighborhood while also supporting the livelihood of California farmers.
Since its start in 1981 as a joint project of the American Friends Service Committee and Market Street Association, Heart of the City Farmers’ Market has been governed by its farmer-vendors. As a result, the farmers have worked to keep stall fees – what they pay for space at the market – low. Currently the fees are $30 per day, per 10 foot by 10 foot stall, which may be the lowest rate in the city. The low stall fees are a prime reason this farmers' market is known not only for its variety but also for its affordability.
The market is also known for its size. With more than 50 farm stands and nearly 20 prepared-food vendors selling fruits, vegetables, flowers, fish, eggs, bread, tamales, rotisserie chicken and more, the market is bigger than most other markets in the city except the Ferry Building and Alemany Markets. According to Kate Creps, Heart of the City market manager, most of the farmers travel 1.5 to 3 hours to reach the market, though some travel further, including Dates by Davall, who drives more than 8 hours one way to bring his produce from the Coachella Valley, east of Los Angeles.
The market also distinguishes itself by its commitment to support the use of food stamps at farmers’ markets. More than 75 percent of all CalFresh electronic benefits used at farmers’ markets in San Francisco are redeemed at Heart of the City.
The organization just reached a new milestone this month with the addition of a Friday market, complementing its existing Wednesday and Sunday gatherings. While it’s still to be seen whether demand is sufficient to sustain the Friday market, it's an exciting development in a neighborhood with no full-service grocery store. Starting a new farmers’ market is difficult in general, but that’s especially true in low-income areas, with the close of the Bayview farmers’ market providing an example.
Describing the Heart of the City Farmers’ Market, though, doesn’t do it justice. So stop reading and mark your calendar for a Wednesday, Friday or Sunday starting as early as 7 a.m. Bring a shopping bag, appetite or both, and enjoy this special market yourself.
- August 30, 2011by Eli Zigas, Food Systems and Urban Agriculture Program Manager
In many neighborhoods in San Francisco, the opening of a new grocery store is notable. But in the Bayview, a new Fresh & Easy store that opened on August 24 filled a full-scale grocery store gap that had persisted for more than 15 years. “It’s all about health, about neighborhood vitality, about jobs, and about fulfilling old promises,” explained Mayor Ed Lee at the opening. “That is what this store represents.”
The store opening, planned since late 2007, marked the success of a partnership between Fresh & Easy and a number of city agencies and advisory groups. In 2007, the Southeast Food Access Working Group, which is supported by the Department of Public Health, released a survey showing widespread support for more grocery options in the Bayview. Responding to this desire, staff at the Mayor’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development (MOEWD) reached out to many established grocery chains in San Francisco, including Safeway, Whole Foods, Andronico’s, Trader Joe’s and others, seeking a company that would open a store in the neighborhood. All of them declined to set up shop, except for Fresh & Easy.
With a lot of recent focus on incentivizing the creation of grocery stores in food deserts through programs such as the federal Healthy Food and Financing Initiative and the California Endowment’s FreshWorks Fund, it’s worth noting that the City of San Francisco did not provide any direct subsidies or loans to Fresh & Easy. Instead, MOEWD helped make the project a reality by assisting the developer in changing its building plan to make space for the grocery store while still adhering to code; helped spearhead a change to the city’s restrictions on alcohol sales in full-scale grocery stores so that the store could offer some alcoholic beverages; and facilitated the availability of federal New Market Tax Credits for Fresh & Easy’s participation in the development of the project. And, as the project moved forward, the Bayview Hunters Point Project Area Committee, which advises the city’s Redevelopment Agency, also provided feedback. This concerted effort by multiple city agencies and groups helped seal the deal for Fresh & Easy.
The store isn’t without controversy. Labor groups are critical of Fresh & Easy’s stance on unions, some neighborhood activists oppose the store’s sale of alcohol, and others argue that the development as a whole should include more affordable housing. Protesters with picket signs joined those who came to the opening to shop for groceries.
But neighbors’ enthusiasm was even more apparent. When Fresh & Easy CEO Tim Mason touted the store’s policy of not stocking food with transfats, “ingredients you can’t pronounce”, and focusing on fresh options – some in the crowd began applauding.
After the speeches, the doors opened to the public. And, for the first time in many years, Bayview residents could walk the aisles of a full-scale grocery store in their neighborhood.