What does not having a major grocery store close to your neighborhood mean? What does living in a food desert mean? South Hagginwood resident Monique Gonzalez answered those questions far more elegantly than any professional writer or politician could:
“As a working single mom, a fully functioning food store, such as Foodco or Winco, would be such a plus for me. I work full time and drive my kid to daycare & sports, but also take the light rail to work. It is such an inconvenience to have to drive all the way to Northgate or Marconi/Fulton to get decent meats and produce. It definitely discourages me from cooking fresh meals, since just a few minutes extra makes a difference for me when homework & bedtimes are one of the biggest priorities. I am trying to not only be a productive citizen by being a working mom, I am also trying to be a good role model for my daughter and encourage healthy habits. It has worked because my daughter prefers fruits and veggies over junk. The problem is that healthy food is just not accessible to us where we live. I’m not sure what needs to be done to encourage markets to open in our area, but I would be willing to help if possible. Not only would it create jobs, it would make North Sac a great place to live for us already here…”
The food desert Monique lives in is one of several which exist in the Sacramento area. It includes an area starting at Richards Boulevard north of downtown Sacramento extending northeast along the I-80 corridor and widening out into northern Sacramento County.
A food desert is a low income neighborhood whose residents have little access to healthy and affordable food. Specifically, this is a census tract with a significant number of families living in poverty who – because of distance and lack of transportation – cannot easily get to a grocery store that sells fresh, nutritious food items. Often the only accessible outlets are fast food restaurants and convenience stores.
Allison Joy did an article for The Sacramento Press back in May of this year which highlighted a South Sac desert and a pilot project, the Alchemist Community Development Corporation’s Healthy Convenience Store Transformation (formerly the Healthy Corner Store Makeover). The goal of the project is to work with small convenience stores located in food deserts to redesign their floor plans to provide more fresh vegetables and fruits to residents in the area.
So, what is being done about the desert on the north side of the city where Gonzalez lives?
In an interview I did with Council Member (or as we call them back in Wisconsin, Alderperson) Allen Warren, elected at the end of 2012 to represent District 2 which includes the north side food desert. We discussed this question, covering several facets of the problem and possible solutions. One of his campaign promises was to bring a large grocery store to the area to create an oasis in the desert. He claims to have met with representatives of several food chains since assuming office. Each chain has said basically the same thing – “It has to be economically viable for us to open a store in any neighborhood.”
Warren is reportedly close to finishing a report on the needs of the area and how it can be made economically appealing for a grocery chain to open a store in the desert. He is working with city government staff to look at the economic incentives and tax breaks, both state and federal, which can be used to bring a large grocery store into the district. Warren noted that one of the reasons it is so difficult to offer these government subsidies is the elimination of economic development zones as the result of changes in state law over the past few years. He expects to be able to release the report publicly by the end of 2013.
Warren said he is aware of the pilot project on the south side involving convenience stores that Joy addressed in her article. The issue, he said, is again the money to pay for the physical changes and equipment necessary to implement the idea. He brought up the short-term alternatives of expanding the existing monthly farmer’s market and creating additional ones in the area, as well as expanding the number of parcels available to construct community gardens. He noted that California has recently increased the property tax breaks for owners who allow their open lots to be used for a set number of years as community gardens. Sacramento is currently one of the leaders in the creation of these gardens, and Warren sees these new tax breaks as a way to create even more.
In discussions on NextDoor.com South Hagginwood, Del Paso and Del Paso Heights residents have suggested demolishing the existing rundown structures on the northwest corner of Marysville Road and Grand Avenue in order to bring in a developer to build a retail complex which would be anchored by a chain grocery store. Warren could use his contacts from his many years as a developer himself to locate an interested party to move forward with this project. He acknowledged that the idea had possibilities but pointed out a couple of major obstacles.
“While some of the site is city owned, some is also currently privately owned,” he said. “The issues associated with eminent domain and financial viability are major questions.”
Warren acknowledged the lack of city government interest in addressing the issue of food deserts in Sacramento over the past few years, agreeing with the point that it had not been and is still not a real priority.
The issue simply lacks attention from the majority of the public or the media, unlike the fight to keep the Kings basketball team or bring in a semi-pro soccer team. However, it may turn out that the big-time investors brought in to save the Kings will play a part in addressing the food desert issue. As the new chair of the committee dealing with the arena construction, Warren is looking to have discussions with the new investment group members about addressing the issue of needed funds and incentives to make grocery stores viable in neighborhoods where they currently don’t exist.
Warren stated, “No alternative or idea should be left off the table when looking to address a solution to the problem of food deserts in my district or in Sacramento as a whole.”
This openness to any idea apparently includes a possibility having to do with the much locally-hated Walmart. A Sacramento Business Journal article from 2011 highlighted the corporation’s plan to open several hundred mini-Walmarts with grocery stores in food deserts by 2016. The announcement was in conjunction with Michelle Obama’s initiative to address the unhealthy eating habits of children and the widespread problem of childhood obesity. Warren said that despite the unpopularity of Walmart in the Sacramento area, he didn’t feel the chances of Sacramento to be chosen would be diminished by Walmart’s lack of esteem among many Sac residents.
“Of course, we would still expect Walmart to be a good corporate citizen,” he said.
The food desert issue in Sacramento, like many other issues which exist in ignored areas like North and South Sac, seems to remain on the back-burner of the city and state government’s agendas; financial questions such as viability and availability of capital resources repeatedly rear their ugly heads. Promises of future action from elected officials in the past and in the present is the single constant. The only way for local residents and community neighborhood associations to make sure oases will be created in food deserts is for them to step forward to create their own solutions.
A possible solution that comes to mind and can be done at the local community level is one that people here should be familiar with: the creation of a food cooperative. This option will be discussed in more detail in Part 2 of this story.