Finding Fresh Food Solutions Beyond The Food Deserts Of St. Louis

Jul 19, 2013

According to the Food and Drug Administration, the definition for the term "food desert" is  "urban neighborhoods and rural towns without ready access to fresh, healthy, and affordable food," meaning that, in a lower income community a grocery store is more than a mile away. Depending on where you live in St. Louis, it may seem that there's a grocery store on every corner. But there are only two Schnucks stores and one Shop N'Save located on the north side of the city, where income levels are low. The USDA extends their definition to include factors such as access to a vehicle, but the problem remains - when your food options are limited by distance or income, what are the best ways to solve it? 

During the summer season, fresh food is at its peak – farmers markets,’ gardens, and grocery stores seem to overflow with multicolored fruits and ripe vegetables. But those juicy tomatoes, zesty lemons and fresh greens can come at a cost that’s bigger than money.

And even if the food is locally grown, why buy it from a tiny grocery store rather than a market chain or all-in-one big box store?

Jill Whitman, former manager of the Old North Grocery Co-op knows the problems of the last issue all too well. 

“We started out with this big building and this big storefront with lots of food and expensive equipment, and we kind of put the cart before the horse," she says. "There was a lot of naïve optimism put in to the co-op at the start, and we’re following up with the repercussions of that now."

The co-op opened on the corner of St. Louis Avenue and North 13th Street three years ago. The idea was that supporters would buy into the co-op, which sits more than a mile away from a traditional grocery store, with time and money, and the profits would help to create a sustainable business model. Whitman, who was the store’s last paid employee, says the store is doing its job of providing fresh food in a central location, but the store’s Noon to 7 p.m. hours aren’t accessible enough.

She says the board is now focused on finding more volunteers to run the store full-time, which will help to shore up more funds to keep the doors open. 

“We can be an establishment where mothers can send their kids to come and pick up a few things for the week without there being a worry," she says. "Just having a walkable grocery store – it seems like that should be the mark of a healthy, thriving community.” 

But St. Louis University medical school student Jeremy Goss has another idea. After observing the lack of fresh food options in his church’s neighborhood of Union and Delmar Avenue, he and two other students brainstormed the idea for the St. Louis Metro Market, a mobile food bus that would travel to scheduled stops on a weekly basis and present educational materials and hold cooking demonstrations.

“We can go into these communities, show up in the neighborhoods, sell directly to the communities that desperately need this service, and provide the nutritional education to reinforce the goal and restore what should have been there from the very beginning,” he says. 

They began applying for grants and contests, and made it to the semi-finals of the Dell Social Innovation Project in April. They have raised over $1,800 so far, have found a farm interested in helping them with food and were also selected to participate in the TOMS Shoes’ ‘Start Something That Matters’ fellowship, which will match their funds. 

So, it seems like we’re getting somewhere. If the food is available and people simply aren’t buying it, maybe more of a hands-on approach is necessary. It’s an idea that Kara Lubischer, the Community Development Specialist for the University of Missouri-St. Louis, says is especially important.

"If we don’t help people understand how to cook healthy foods, how to shop better, then we really haven’t solved any problems. All we’ve done is put a lot of foods in a lot of neighborhoods, and people might not want it, or they just don’t know what to do with it," she says.

Lubischer is attempting to meet these issues in the middle with the St. Louis Healthy Corner Store Project. Launched in 2011, neighborhood stores are nominated by the community to revamp their image and stock healthy food, and store owners are paired with a mentor.  Leadership groups work with the University of Missouri Extension, one of three program sponsors, to offer nutrition classes and health and wellness activities to drum up support. So far, six stores in the St. Louis area have participated and another class of stores will begin participating by the end of the year.

So, would it be safe to say that the city’s food future is looking up?   

Possibly, Lubischer says. But  the idea for change is one thing, supporting it and seeing it through is something else altogether.