WOONSOCKET – Keyondra Davis doesn't kid herself about the kind of food they put on the shelves at the pharmacy near her home in Cumberland Village.
A lot is just overpriced junk food, says Davis. Still, as much as she dislikes it, she knows she's usually going to end up at the store when her two-year-old son Jayden's stomach starts to growl.
She doesn't have much choice.
She lives in a food desert.
At least that's what the U.S. Department of Agriculture says. Across the country, the USDA has identified scores of inner city and rural locales where the dearth of supermarkets drives people to convenience stores, pharmacies and fast-food restaurants as their vendors of first resort. The problem with that, the government says, is that these fresh-food Saharas are breeding zones for childhood obesity, diabetes and other conditions borne of a diet too dependent on the sugar-rich, fat-slaked fare that such venues make their stock and trade.
Like Davis, just 19 years old and without access to a motor vehicle, many of the denizens of food deserts are economically disadvantaged individuals who are unable to plan regular trips to a supermarket that's even just a few miles away from home.
“The only supermarkets are on Diamond Hill Road,” she said as she pushed her son in a stroller through the pharmacy's parking lot. “Who wants to carry groceries on the bus? I know I don't. That's why I spend too much money in stores like this.”
The agriculture department defines food deserts as low-income areas where more than 500 people or 33 percent of the population lives more than a mile from an affordable food store. In rural areas, the minimum distance is 10 miles.
The USDA says some 23 million people live in food deserts across the nation, many in swaths of territory, especially in the Midwest and South, vast enough to swallow up the Ocean State several times over. Food deserts are generally much smaller and far more scattered along the Atlantic coast.
Nevertheless, the USDA says Rhode Island has four distinct regions that rate as food deserts, including a tiny wedge of South Providence and a portion of South County near Matunuck Beach.
Woonsocket has the distinction of being the only city in the state outside the capital with not just one food desert, but two, both of which are significantly larger than that of Providence. One is roughly bounded by Canal and Singleton streets on the north, Morse Avenue on the south, Arnold Street on the east and Rhodes Avenue on the west. The other stretches from Cumberland and Logee streets to River Island Park and Circle Street.
Together, these areas are home to some 6,900 individuals – roughly a sixth of the city's population– including nearly 2,000 low-income families, many with poor access to transportation, according to the USDA.
Where did the term food desert come from?
It gained currency in a 2009 USDA report to Congress that declared, “Limited access to nutritious food and relatively easier access to less nutritious food may be linked to poor diets and, ultimately, to obesity and diet-related diseases.”
It wasn't until a couple of months ago, however, that the USDA mapped the location of food deserts, which were identified using a complicated set of data, including population and income demographics from the census and directories of food vendors. Arguably, however, it's been First Lady Michelle Obama who has done most to draw attention to the issue, which she has made a centerpiece of her campaign against childhood obesity.
Less than two weeks ago, Obama made headlines when she held a press conference with executives from Wal-Mart, Walgreen's, SuperValu (parent corporation of Shaw's supermarkets) as they pledged to open or expand 1,500 stores in areas deemed food deserts.
IT COMES as no surprise to physicians, child advocates and community planners that parts of central Woonsocket have been declared food deserts.
“We do think it's a serious issue,” says Elizabeth Burke Bryant, director of KidsCount Rhode Island, a watchdog agency for child welfare.
Dr. Beata Nelken, a pediatrican at Thundermist Healh Center, agrees.
“It's not Death Valley, but it's still a desert you can die in because you only have access to foods that are not nutritious,” she says. “And if that's all that's available and all you can afford – guess what? You don't have a lot of options.”
As director of the non-profit clinic's “Thunderkids” – a pilot project making strides against childhood obesity, Nelken believes she is witnessing first-hand the bitter harvest of the city's supermarket wasteland. Some 85 percent of all children who live in in the city receive health care through Thundermist, she says, and 37 percent show up overweight enough to be classified as obese, significantly higher than the statewide average.
Without doubt, says Nelken, the statistic is linked to the dearth of supermarkets where fresh produce is sold and, conversely, the glut of fast-food outlets and convenience stores.
“We have fast food restaurants, which is what people tend to eat if they're on a budget and constrained for time,” says Nelken. “The easiest thing to do is go to a fast food restaurant, so we have 37 percent of our kids who are obese. It's expensive to eat well. It's a lot easier to get fast food than it is to get fruits and vegetables.”
Carrie Zaslow is the program director of Our Neighborhoods, a quality-of-life improvement project that's a joint venture of the Providence-based Local Initiatives Support Corporation and Neighborworks Blackstone River Valley. She says city residents know they're getting shortchanged in the healthy food department – and they're not happy about it.
About two years ago, said Zaslow, Our Neighborhoods conducted a poll of city residents as a means of identifying problems that needed to be addressed in order to improve the quality of life in the city.
“Through that, health and access to healthy foods was identified as a weakness,” said Zaslow.
Though there are two supermarkets in East Woonsocket – Shaw's and Price-Rite – as well as several others just over the line in Blackstone, Bellingham and North Smithfield, they might as well be on Mars for inner-city residents who don't have cars, says Zaslow. Public transportation and farmers markets fill in part of the void, she says, but it's not enough to address the problem.
The gap should be “a marketing opportunity” for the city to reach out to food purveyors, especially those who've already expressed an interest to the first lady in expanding into food deserts, says Zaslow.
“We know looking at this on a policy level access to fresh and healthy foods affects people's health, and health affects everything else in their lives,” she says. “It affects their ability for their kids to do better in school, for adults to do better at jobs. It's something that often gets disconnected from the whole, but it's really something that's part of it.”
Indeed, Economic Development Director Matt Wojcik says the Social Flatlands, in particular, is an area that “should and could” be of interest to a major supermarket chain. Not only are there plenty of families with children who live in the area, he says, there is also a concentrated elderly population that would patronize such a store.
At least one supermarket chain has sniffed around for a possible location in the city of late, says Wojcik. Aldi's a Germany-based discount chain with two stores in Rhode Island, has had “on and off” interest in developing an inner-city supermarket in Woonsocket, he says. The company is not currently considering any location in Woonsocket, but one town official in North Smithfield said it has made inquiries about Dowling Village, off Eddie Dowling Highway.
Ultimately, Wojcik and others say the challenges of bringing new supermarkets to underserved areas is as old as economics itself – or at least capitalism. Supermarkets simply won't build new stores in areas where they don't think they'll turn a profit.
“Obviously it's an economic issue for supermarkets,” says Bryant of KidsCount. “Trying to both attract and retain high quality supermarket services in inner city neighborhoods isn't just a problem in the Woonsocket area, but all cities and towns across the country.”
Farmers markets are “at least a response to get some degree of the problem solved by having access to fresh fruits and vegetables,” she says. Venues like the farmers market outside Thundermist's headquarters in Clinton Street every Tuesday afternoon are attempting to reach out to the urban poor even more than others by accepting food stamps and subsidy vouchers available to low-income people, says Bryant.
Ultimately, however, Wojcik says getting fresh produce to food-parched urban zones might require a more creative approach to food marketing than the sporadic farmer's market. The consignment store model – where all sorts of private vendors share space controlled by another individual or group, perhaps even a non-profit – is an intriguing possibility that warrants more study, he says.
Nelken says a few big cities have overcome daunting challenges to create coop-style outlets like that Wojcik suggests, places where mainline supermarkets and other purveyors all offer products under one roof on a regular basis. With a coordinated, grassroots effort involving schools, non-profits and small business, big supermarkets may be persuaded to participate, but don't expect them to lead the way, she says.
“It's been done successfully in Philadelphia, with supermarkets, small vendors and local businesses all playing a role,” she says. “It took basically half of Philadelphia to create this and they've managed to make it profitable. It can be done, but it takes quite some effort.”