On a cold winter morning in North Philadelphia a parade of young students, seven to fifteen years of age, march down Olney Ave on their way to school. Carrying book bags and wearing bulky winter jackets, their hands are buried in $.50 bags of potato chips and the cold light of the early morning sun reflects off the plastic packages of candy and sticky buns crinkling beneath their mittens. They are eating their most important meal of the day, a meal meant to replenish their growing bodies, nourish their minds, and prepare the young students for a rigorous, energy-draining day of learning. They are eating their breakfast.
Unfortunately, this image is repeated in many low-income, urban neighborhoods throughout America as a vast amount of people cannot afford to buy healthy food. Stemming from government subsidization of three major crops: corn, wheat, and soy, the mass production of cheap junk food and the subsequent obesity epidemic and decline in the health of Americans hits residents of low-income neighborhoods disproportionately to more food-secure people.
As junk food provides a lot of calories for little money, and affordable, fresh produce becomes increasingly difficult to find in food deserts, low-income individuals and families continue to see a decline in health and general well being. Dr. Julie Anne Henstenburg, a professor and director of La Salle University’s nutrition program claims that this lack of healthy food for low-income individuals has “a direct impact on human potential.”
So what is being done to correct this trend? How can the students described above get the nutrition they desperately need to have long happy lives and make a positive impact on society? La Salle University is exploring this complicated question with their program Explore Nutrition. Headed by La Salle’s special projects coordinator, Tom Wingert, the Explore Nutrition program is a partnership between La Salle, the neighborhood grocery store, Fresh Grocer, and an array of community institutions including churches and food pantries, and its mission is to improve the nutritional health of La Salle’s neighborhood.
The Fresh Grocer has had a particularly large impact on the nutritional landscape of La Salle’s neighborhood. Thehe area marked in the picture above indicates Olney, the North Philadelphia neighborhood where La Salle is located. Before the 2009 construction of the the Fresh Grocer, this neighborhood was considered a food desert. Defined as “areas that lack access to affordable fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lowfat milk, and other foods that make up a healthy diet” by the Center for Disease Control, people who live in food deserts are at a higher risk for health related disease.
It is a part of the Fresh Grocer’s mission to combat this problem and they are doing so by purposefully opening stores in less profitable neighborhoods as well as developing new ways to help the nutritionally lacking community. “There’s a lot of community outreach with the local politicians and church leaders,” said Assistant store manager Natale Cariela, and this outreach helps to mitigate the impacts of food deserts on community health. “We have our Community Outreach Committee which meets once a month and put forth plans for different ways we can reach out.”
Volunteer work is another aspect of Fresh Grocer’s community outreach program. “All of our stores go and volunteer at Philabundance to pack up food,” said Cariela. But it is the grocery store’s involvement in the Explore Nutrition program’s Easter Food Drive that demonstrates its commitment to providing fresh produce for the community. The food drive involved the donation, organization, and distribution of a variety of fresh produce to fifteen different churches and food banks around the Philadelphia area. Fresh Grocer played a major role in the food drive, donating 3600 pounds of fresh sweet potatoes, carrots, and greens while also providing a place for La Salle volunteers to store and sort through the food.
Though many grocery stores donate their time and food to food drives, what is unique about the Fresh Grocer’s involvement is their donation of fresh, healthy produce as opposed to the canned goods and non-perishables normally seen lining the shelves of food pantries. In this way, the Fresh Grocer is addressing more than just the issue of hunger, but they are tackling malnutrition head on and in turn, helping the children of the neighborhood get the nutrition they need to live healthy, prosperous lives.
Watch the video version of this story produced by Alyssa Wynne, Ashley Kuhn, and myself.