Expanding Inner City Food Co-Ops

fromKWMU

As the rate of obesity, diabetes and other nutrition-related health problems rise in the U.S., focus is again turning to low-income neighborhoods that have few healthy food options. Food co-ops are stepping in, in some underserved communities.

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People in low income urban areas who have no car and no supermarket within walking distance often get their food from convenience stores and fast food restaurants. That's a recipe for poor nutrition, obesity and diseases like diabetes. There's been growing attention to this issue of so-called food deserts. And we have two reports now on attempts to address the problem.

First, food co-ops. Here's Veronique LaCapra of St. Louis Public Radio.

VERONIQUE LACAPRA: In St. Louis, just a few miles north of the famous Gateway Arch, abandoned half-demolished buildings and vacant lots are a common site. In the 1950s, many residents and businesses fled the once-thriving Old North neighborhood. Today, only about 2,000 people live here. The only major supermarket closed its doors a decade ago. Old North resident Etta Adams says up until now she's had to do her shopping outside this neighborhood.

Ms. ETTA ADAMS: Well, there hasn't been nothing over here, too much to, you know, to shop from.

LACAPRA: Last fall, Kara Lubischer began an effort to figure out just where neighborhood residents were getting their groceries. Lubischer, who is with the University of Missouri Extension service, discovered the answer was not in Old North. While the neighborhood is chock full of fast food restaurants and convenience stores, the nearest large supermarket is a few miles away.

Ms. KARA LUBISCHER (University of Missouri Extension Service ): Which doesn't sound that far if you have a car, but it sounds very far when you have to get on a bus, and you have to carry your week's worth of groceries home with you.

LACAPRA: Nearly half of households here don't have regular access to a car. Old North has had one small grocery store. It stocks mostly junk food, cleaning supplies and alcohol. Its tiny produce section consists of a handful of sorry looking vegetables and pieces of fruit. But just a few blocks away, things are now looking a whole lot better. Last month, this community-run grocery store opened up.

(Soundbite of food co-op)

LACAPRA: The new food co-op is small, only about 2,000 square feet, with a cement floor and plain fluorescent lighting. But the walls are freshly painted and brightly colored signs offer tips for healthy eating. A big cardboard vat of watermelon sits in the center of the store. Bushel baskets of tomatoes, eggplants and corn fill shelves made from cinder blocks and unfinished pine planks. Etta Adams likes what she sees.

Ms. ADAMS: These are nice, fresh vegetables and prices are nice and the food looks good.

LACAPRA: A local nonprofit spearheaded the co-op project. Sean Thomas, who heads that group, hopes the store will make it easier for residents here to buy healthy food.

Mr. SEAN THOMAS (Director, Old North St. Louis Restoration Group): But it will be their choice. If they want to come in and buy a bunch of vegetables and fruit and get some of the other basics, bread, milk, eggs, that's great. If they only want to come in and get a gallon of milk once a week and do their other shopping elsewhere, that's fine, too. But we certainly want to make it accessible and affordable for as many residents around here as possible.

LACAPRA: Like many co-ops, the St. Louis store is relying as much as possible on local producers like this guy.

Mr. RUSTY LEE (Farmer): Hi, how are you doing? I'm Rusty.

LACAPRA: Rusty Lee and his family raise vegetables and livestock on their farm about 70 miles west of St. Louis. Sitting on his red tractor, Lee is dressed in denim overalls and a baseball cap, looking every bit the part of the Midwestern farmer.

(Soundbite of tractor)

Mr. LEE: We saw it as an opportunity to help somebody out, to help ourselves out. It's a market that no one has really been servicing.

LACAPRA: The Old North co-op is the first of its kind in St. Louis. But dozens of similar food co-ops have opened in inner city neighborhoods across the country, from Oakland, California to the South Bronx. A community-run grocery store remains an untested concept here. Its survival may depend on just how willing Old North residents will be to change both their shopping and eating habits.

For NPR News, I'm Veronique LaCapra in St. Louis.

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