Many neighborhoods in Philadelphia are considered underprivileged “food deserts,” low-income areas that lack regular access to grocery stores and fresh markets. They battle with consequences such as early childhood obesity and an overall decline in health over time.
Kensington is among these neighborhoods, with a history that includes a lack of grocery stores and sources of fresh produce and healthy options. Over the past decade, many organizations have set out to improve these conditions for local residents in the Kensington area and beyond, regardless of age or racial or economic background.
Sister Connie Trainor of The Sisters Of Saint Joseph hears about lack of healthy food access from the people in her program, consisting of mainly new immigrants.
“[They] can only go where the bus takes [them],” she said. “Many don’t have cars. They’d like to get good food for their families, but they don’t have the money to get some of these better foods that can be expensive. People often don’t have a choice.”
Among some of the most commonly seen and most popular places for urban residents to shop for food is a corner store market. According to a study for Pediatrics in 2009, the average student in the Philadelphia area takes in more than 350 calories on each of their trips to a corner store. With 42 percent of them visiting one of these stores two times a day and five days out of the week–they are eating and drinking about a pound of excess calories per week.
Special projects, like The Food Trust’s Healthy Corner Store Initiative, realize the importance of having healthy corner stores in urban areas that are deemed food deserts. As one of the most common, convenient, and affordable places for urban residents to visit for food, corner stores are commonly known for having options that are high in calories and low in nutrition. The initiative works with an upwards of 600 of these stores and strives to have continued and evolving relationships with their owners.
The HCS Initiative gives healthy product lists to the owners and asks them to choose four new product offerings that they think their customers will be interested in purchasing. They have also offered $200 incentive checks over the course of two years to help with costs and have offered nutritional programs and lessons inside of stores to help customers learn about the foods, as well as new recipes.
“We provide ongoing training to store owners,” said Jen Tepel, project coordinator at the Healthy Corner Store Initiative, “on where they should source fresh fruits and vegetables and other healthy products, how they can display products, pricing and promotion strategies, and how to engage with customers and receive feedback to track success.”
The idea began with the organization seeing a need to increase health and awareness for Philadelphia’s youth.
“It started with programming in local schools and we realized that the neighborhoods where students were living were saturated with unhealthy options,” Tepel said. “The reality was that they were stopping at corner stores to and from school and buying high caloric items, which contributes to early childhood obesity. We realized corner stores had to be part of the solution because we know that they’re here to stay.”
The initiative has also worked to give full makeovers to the outside and inside of five corner stores in an effort to attract more people to shop the healthier options that now reside in them.
Along with The Food Trust, another organization dedicated to taking Kensington out of the desert is the Kensington Food Co-Op, which started in 2008 as a cooperative, member-owned grocery store for local residents. The organization has recently chose MAKE studio in Northern Liberties to handle the architecture of their future grocery store space.
Until the space’s opening, every fourth tuesday of the month they hold a marketplace at the Circle Of Hope in Kensington, where the community is encouraged to come and shop fresh and locally sourced produce and other healthy items.
“It’s about neighbors meeting neighbors and coming together in one place,” said Holly Logan, president of the KCFC. “We are very lucky to have Circle Of Hope offer up their location for our marketplace until we have our own space. We have a lot of returning faces, but every tuesday marketplace I see a new person coming to shop who heard about it from neighbors or other members.”
Greensgrow Farms, an industrial site turned urban farm in Kensington, is another organization seeking to make a positive change in the community’s availability to healthy foods.
In the winter months, the organization will continue to host events to bring the community together and provide them with locally sourced, organic, and fresh food and produce. The month of December brings Holiday Bazaars and a Winter Farmstand.
Looking ahead, while Kensington is beginning to have more access to nutritious foods, educational programs to help residents live healthier lives, and community events that blend local businesses and neighbors in one space–the affordability of food for everyone living in a food desert is still an issue organizations are striving to tackle.
“One thing we want to implement is the Food For All program. Sometimes food co-ops still aren’t affordable for people who want to buy from them. We want our food to be affordable for everyone,” said Logan.
– Text and images by Elena Hart.