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Co-op is oasis in urban food desert

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 22, 2010 - Using his fingers to rake away ankle-high weeds on a plot next to his house, George Banks finally looks up with a smile after spotting something that a visitor doesn't immediately see.

"There," he says as he slowly straightens his stout body. "Watermelon vines. Got some collards coming up, too."

Whenever his arthritis, heart disease and diabetes cooperated last spring and summer, Banks, 63, spent time tending his garden in Old North St. Louis.

The work is not a hobby but a necessity. His health problems require him to eat plenty of fresh vegetables. Because no full-service supermarket exists in his neighborhood, Banks relies on his garden for some food.

"We got a lot of sick people around here," he says. "Some of them don't have cars to get to grocery stores. We need a Schnucks down here."

Instead of a Schnucks, residents got perhaps the next best thing. On a sunny Saturday morning in July, the Old North St. Louis Restoration Group opened a 2,000 square-foot food co-op at 2718 13th St., a block east of Crown Candy Kitchen, an Old North landmark. The co-op is one of the group's responses to the community's food desert. The term refers to places where residents lack access to full-service supermarkets and must travel miles away from their homes for fresh fruits, vegetables and other nutritious goods.

The group's other approaches to helping people find food in this desert include a farmers' market, community gardens and special arrangements for farmers to deliver foods to families from spring to fall.

These options have not kept residents like James Smith from wishing that a huge supermarket would find its way into the community. He's a fine artist in his 60s and a resident of Jackson Park Senior Apartments, just two blocks east of the co-op.

A Long Trip to the Supermarket

Late Sunday morning, when the neighborhood was quiet, Smith alighted from a bus at his apartment building, carrying two pink grocery bags. He was returning from a shopping trip to Schnucks, at 5055 Arsenal St. in south St. Louis.

"It takes about an hour each way," he says. "It's another reason we need a grocery store in this neighborhood. There is a store closer to me, but the quality is so bad, I wouldn't even buy food for a dog from there."

He was asked about the co-op, which opens on late afternoons, Monday through Friday, and from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturdays.

"It's not open on Sunday, but the hours aren't the problem," Smith says. "It's convenient, and I'm glad it's there. But they don't seem to offer much variety."

Cheryl Kelly, an assistant professor at St. Louis University's School of Public Health, isn't surprised when she hears that residents in a food desert are slow to embrace a farmer's market or co-op.

"People have been living their lives in a certain way for a long time," Kelly says. "So just putting a farmer's market in is not going to make that go away."

She says education and outreach can help encourage people to take full advantage of good alternatives to full-service grocery stores.

Benefits for Farmers As Well As City Residents

Whether Banks and Smith realize it, Old North made history on the day the co-op opened. Its significance was indicated by the number of public officials who showed up to cut the ribbon. Gov. Jay Nixon wasn't there, but he dispatched the state's agriculture director, Jon Hagler, to stress that the opening was a very big deal. The arrangement offers a way of bringing urban and rural interests together, boosting business for farmers, and giving urban residents "access to affordable, healthy and local food where possible," Hagler said.

Although the region surrounding Old North is predominantly black, whites seemed to make up most of those at the co-op on opening day. Sean Thomas, executive director of Old North, says there are enough people in the area to support the co-op.

"Based on census data, 13,000 live in Old North and all the neighborhoods that touch it," Thomas says. "We don't need huge volume. What we need is constant flow or regular customers to sustain it."

He says 41 percent of residents in the area lack access to cars. He adds that the site is conveniently located for people who use one of the two bus lines that makes stops at or near the facility.

Thomas says it might be unrealistic to expect a grocery chain to put a store in Old North.

"The supermarket industry has evolved into larger and larger stores serving broader areas with lots of space for parking, lots of traffic and large population bases," he says. "So this area was not an area on their radar. The area is labeled low income. Grocery stores would like to be in higher-income areas."

Counting on Health Benefits

Thomas says the success of the co-op will be judged less by the volume of business than by its impact on health.

"Obesity and cardiovascular disease could be traced to health, diet and limited options for available and accessible food options," he says. He adds that the area is typical in that many vendors offer food high in fat and calories without a lot of nutrition.

"If your diet gets filled up with that, it's not surprising that people end up with high incidences of heart disease and diabetes," he says.

Banks, the gardener, knows as much. Last spring, he mentioned the "blockage in my heart from eating lots of greasy food, lots of fried food. It took a long time for it to catch up with me."

Old North straddles two problem zip codes -- 63106 and 63107 -- where, in Banks' words, there are "a lot of sick people." For example, mortality from diabetes in the 63106 zipcode was 71.9 per 100,000, according to a St. Louis health disparity study released last year. This rate compares to 37.4 per 100,000 for the city in general and 47.3 per 100,000 for the black population nationally. Similarly, cancer and heart-related deaths far outstrip those in the city as a whole and in the national black population as well.

Banks said that his own experiences with heart disease and diabetes have taught him to "eat a whole lot of vegetables, less salt and lots of baked food. But lots of people around here eat bad food, lots of people. They aren't sick yet, but they will be."

During the third week of October, this visitor returned to the old north St. Louis neigborhood, curious about how Banks' watermelon turned out. Banks was not at the A-frame brick home, where he lives alone. A lone rose bloomed in a bush next to a red brick wall, discolored by heavy tuckpointing.

In the garden, a few collards still grew. But there were no signs of watermelon vines. Perhaps they didn't make it past the spring, like some other things that bloom briefly and die early in a food desert.

This story was written with the assistance of the Dennis A. Hunt Fund for Health Journalism, which is administered by the California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships, a program of USC's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Funding for health reporting is provided in part by the Missouri Foundation for Health, a philanthropic organization whose vision is to improve the health of the people in the communities it serves.

Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.

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