Delridge area's 'food desert' gets fruit, veggie oasis
A "healthy corner store" project in West Seattle's Delridge neighborhood aims to bring better food choices to a neighborhood without any sizable grocery store that leaves residents — especially those without cars — with few convenient options for a healthful diet.
Seattle Times staff reporter
At the register of Bhim Singh's Super 24 Food Store is a sight not typically associated with convenience stores, especially those in low-income areas such as West Seattle's Delridge neighborhood: a batch of shiny red apples.
Lemons and limes populate the refrigerator. Onions, potatoes, garlic and ginger dot a shelf in back. "Sometimes people go to market and they forget the onion," Singh says. "I sell for 69 cents — two for a dollar."
As efforts grow to improve health among the nation's poorer communities, the Delridge Neighborhood Development Association is hoping to make healthy variety the norm along its largely neglected corridor.
Delridge lacks any supermarket of significant size, which makes buying produce inconvenient, even unlikely, for those without a car. The association's "healthy corner-store project," which aims to get stores to trade fried chicken and jo-jos for pears, beans and greens, is waging its crusade with the aid of a King County-run Kellogg Foundation grant. The foundation is funding efforts in nine U.S. communities to fight such issues as obesity, diabetes and infant mortality.
In neighborhoods like this, convenience stores usually focus on low-cost items with long shelf lives. Such items — chips, cigarettes, malt liquor — are usually not healthful.
As a result, "responsible people aren't making irresponsible decisions — they're making decisions based on the options they have," says Randy Engstrom, the neighborhood association's founding director. "We're trying to compete with an economic model that's been around a long time."
Rather than fight the problem by bringing in farmers markets, the group aims to partner with local farmers to either supply existing stores or use them as customer-pickup sites in community-supported-agriculture (CSA) arrangements. "Farmers markets are rad, but that's not sustainable," Engstrom says. "There's only so many farmers and only so many days of the week."
For its pilot project, group leaders chose the Super 24, with which they already had a relationship through regular store visits. The store is less than a mile from the association's offices.
Singh, who bought the store four years ago, is already imagining the possibilities. Where the slush machine is now, he foresees veggies: spinach, lettuce, celery, cilantro.
"All green stuff," he says excitedly. "That's what I'm thinking."
Not getting veggies
For lifelong resident Ranette Iding, the reason Delridge is often termed a "food desert" — a place with little or no access to healthful food — is no mystery. "Where we live now, we have to drive to get groceries," she says. Residents without cars "are resigned to the fact that they have to take a long bus ride, or eat out all the time, or go to a minimart."
Delridge and several adjoining neighborhoods — an area bordered by the West Seattle Bridge to the north, Southwest Roxbury Street to the south, 35th Avenue Southwest on the west and the West Duwamish greenbelt to the east — have roughly two dozen convenience stores and only one supermarket near the southern boundary. "That's a huge area with no grocery," Iding says.
Delridge offers no plot of land large enough to hold a supermarket, association director Engstrom says. "Also, there's the perception that this isn't the kind of neighborhood that would support one."
Supermarkets in West Seattle's Admiral District or at Westwood Village can actually be easier to reach by bus from White Center, to the south, than from Delridge. Walking can require formidable uphill treks.
Iding has heard tales of time-strapped parents delivering fast-food meals to schoolkids. One local day-care staffer told her that when the care center asked parents to supply lunches for a week, "kids came in with little plastic bags from the minimart, with corn dogs and a candy bar."
The retail project is one of two — the other is in White Center — overseen by the King County Food and Fitness Initiative. In addition to healthful eating, the initiative aims to provide spaces promoting physical activity and community.
Though unconnected, the Delridge project also mirrors efforts of the national Healthy Corner Store Network, which local organizers are eyeing for inspiration.
"Convenience stores thrive on providing food that's not healthy," says Delridge resident Galena White, who's leading efforts to start a permanent produce stand in the area. "The goal is to show that providing healthy food can be profitable."
But when local project leaders contacted store owners with the idea, only four responded.
"For some, there's a language barrier," Engstrom says. "Some are second- and third-generation owners. This is what their family does. And then here comes this fancy letter from some organization talking about changing their store."
Admittedly, store owners are being asked to take some risk, "but we're also offering to help them grow their customer base," Engstrom says.
In addition to stocking stores with fresher, more healthful food, project leaders plan to spiff the stores up and help promote their new offerings. Store owners will be asked to provide wall space for community bulletin boards rather than beer or cigarette ads.
Eventually, the group wants to create a brand label that member stores could use to promote themselves.
For now they're working with Singh, considering his customer base and suggesting items to add or reduce. That might mean, for instance, asking that he devote 10 percent of his snack racks to granola bars rather than candy bars.
Already, the store has been outfitted with a new mural showing a halved apple and a bird on a branch, with handprints of lime and Kelly green. It reads: "Healthy cornerstore, Super 24."
Can this work?
"I guess what it boils down to is getting enough people into the store who will buy healthy food," says the co-op's White. "We have to get people to know there is good food in the stores, and we have to provide a selection that will keep them coming back."
Singh knows it's not easy for stores like his to carry produce; when customers aren't used to looking for it, it often goes unsold and spoils. That's lost money.
"The first couple of months was hard," he says. He ate a lot of apples and bananas. Everything else, "I take home. My wife uses them. Why waste?"
But then customers began to keep up, and he's excited about the possibilities that the project could bring.
Another wave of customers rolls in. One man grabs two 99-cent bags of jo-jos. A woman buys Snapple and a bag of Doritos.
Aisha Zaffino, 5, roams the aisles, seeking something to pair with her bag of Funyuns. "You already got chips," says her mother.
The two are frequently at odds. "She wants a lollipop, and I want her to have an apple," Destiny Zaffino says.
They live not far away, and because of her schedule, Zaffino often has to squeeze in late-night grocery runs. A convenience store is often the easiest place to go.
Knowing she can find produce at the Super 24 gives her some peace of mind, she says, and the prospect of stores offering even more is reassuring.
"That's definitely a good thing," she says. "Everybody should do it."
Marc Ramirez: 206-464-8102 or email@example.com
Information in this article, originally published Dec. 5, 2009, was corrected Dec. 5, 2009. A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Delridge and several adjoining neighborhoods have no supermarkets. There is one supermarket near the southern boundary.
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