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Seattle's biggest food desert needs jobs more than grocery stores

Delridge is the definition of a food desert, but a solution will be more complicated than just adding a few Safeways.

Farmers' markets, community coops and local grocery stores are nice, but increased job opportunities and the dissolution of the popular 128 bus would most affect access to healthy food in Seattle's Delridge neighborhood. That's according to a new City of Seattle report published this month about food access priorities for women and families in Delridge.
 
An ethnically diverse neighborhood with familiar geographic challenges — including valleys and ridges that make getting around difficult — Delridge has no traditional grocery store to speak of. 
 
The report itself, a rare partnership between City Councilmember Mike O'Brien's office, the Office of Sustainability and the Environment and the volunteer-run Seattle Women’s Commission, was formulated in direct response to the complaints of one Delridge mother, who, in 2011, testified before The Seattle Women’s Commission that she was unable to carry out the most basic household task: grocery shopping in her neighborhood. There ought to be a better way to access healthy food, she told the commission, than taking public transportation to a grocery store, kids in tow, in order to spend her monthly WIC allotment — a sum she's required to spend in one lump visit.
 
The commission brought her complaint to the city, finding support in the Office of Sustainability and the Environment and with Councilmember Mike O’Brien, whose office agreed to fund a project coordinator for the study. Commissioner Michele Frix called the project “a natural fit" for The Women's Commission, which has a vested interest in health disparity issues among women of color, immigrants, refugees and female veterans.
 
With funding secured, the unlikely trio hired project coordinator Giulia Pasciuto, who studied food access as a graduate student at UCLA.
 
The coalition was mindful of replicating the work of other community food organizations. They weren't the first to notice that Delridge had a grocery store problem — nor were they the first to try to solve it. Food access organizations like Stockbox Grocers, The King County Food and Fitness Initiative and Healthy Foods Here have ventured into Delridge with pilot programs that have since expired. More recently, FEEST, a high school cooking program, and the Little Red Hen Project, a gardening and cooking education program, have taken root.
 
“We were concerned that a lot of folks having been researching in [the Delridge] area, and we didn’t want to reinvent that,” explained Frix, who works at the Seattle International Foundation and volunteers with the commission. “We were all super committed to making sure these communities are included in city government”. 
 
Instead, Pasciuto planned to focus more on elevating the voices of Delridge women themselves, with the hope of creating actionable recommendations from their input. After reaching out to community organizations, the she devised public workshops, equipped with translators, to help start a conversation with local women about what they needed. 

The report's findings were surprising. The cultural relevance and proximity of a grocery store, participants said, were less important than its ability to create economic opportunities for local residents. Increased job and income-generating opportunities and the chance to build social capital through learning about growing and cooking healthy food all felt more urgent to the study's 40 participants than merely adding more grocery stores to the neighborhood. 
 
“A grocery gap or a food desert is important to think about," Pasciuto explained, "but studies show that when a grocery is added to a low-income neighborhood, there is increased perception of access, but people weren’t shopping there.”
 
Those findings seem to be in line with a general cultural shift locally, which has focused on economic opportunity through campaigns like the $15 minimum wage. The same is true in the public health arena, according to Pasciuto, where the conversation is shifting from simply looking at the physical determinants of health to economic ones. 
 
Still, cultural relevance was a contributing factor. Low-income participants said they felt unwelcome in higher-income, mostly white markets like the West Seattle Farmers Market. That's despite programs like Fresh Bucks, which is geared towards giving EBT users better access to healthy foods.
 
The proposed Metro bus cuts on the ballot in the upcoming April election make the idea of public action on behalf of food access in Delridge more urgent. The popular 128 route in Delridge brings community members to the West Seattle food bank, where 31 percent of study participants reported acquiring healthy food. Changing the route would be “totally devastating” to the community, says Pasciuto, since the majority of women and families travel by bus to acquire groceries, regardless of where they shop. As late as February, metro planners were considering changes to the 128 that would effectively isolate the central part of Delridge from West Seattle.
 
The recently-formed Delridge Grocery Co-op, which is slated to open in August, could be an option for Delridge residents seeking healthy food, but they are still seeking funding and additional members. Pasciuto's report also includes a range of other recommendations to the Seattle City Council: Increased funding for projects like Fresh Bucks, devoting Neighborhood Matching Funds to new food ventures, creating a food hub — much like the ‘Food Innovation Zone’ currently under development in the Rainier Valley, diversifying job opportunities, supporting a low-income bus fare and changing WIC benefits to a more EBT-like system that would allow users to spread their grocery shopping out over the course of a month.
 
There is hope that the project might pave the way for future efforts to bridge gaps between policymakers and community members, in the budget and decision-making process.
 
“The project brought everything together in a way that we try to do all the time, but can be hard,” said Councilmember Mike O’Brien. “I make better policy decisions when I have these large groups of volunteers thinking thoughtfully, giving me advice […] I think it’s outstanding.”
 
The final report is available on the City of Seattle website.

Anna Goren is a writer living in Seattle, WA focusing on food and social justice. She writes a regular column for The Seattle Globalist, and has worked on many aspects of food issues as a cook, farm apprentice, food bank employee and community organizer. She blogs about her leftovers at www.tuppups.com.


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Comments:

Posted Tue, Mar 18, 7:14 a.m. Inappropriate

Ahhh the food desert myth, just sitting their, demanding a government program!

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/18/health/research/pairing-of-food-deserts-and-obesity-challenged-in-studies.html

Studies Question the Pairing of Food Deserts and Obesity

It has become an article of faith among some policy makers and advocates, including Michelle Obama, that poor urban neighborhoods are food deserts, bereft of fresh fruits and vegetables.
Related in Opinion

But two new studies have found something unexpected. Such neighborhoods not only have more fast food restaurants and convenience stores than more affluent ones, but more grocery stores, supermarkets and full-service restaurants, too. And there is no relationship between the type of food being sold in a neighborhood and obesity among its children and adolescents.

Within a couple of miles of almost any urban neighborhood, “you can get basically any type of food,” said Roland Sturm of the RAND Corporation, lead author of one of the studies. “Maybe we should call it a food swamp rather than a desert,” he said.

Simon

Posted Tue, Mar 18, 7:32 a.m. Inappropriate

This map is not accurate. Top Banana, the fruit/vegetable stand on 65th and 15th NW is not listed. This is open year round and has been there for about 20 years. I wonder what else is missing?

Norge

Posted Tue, Mar 18, 7:34 a.m. Inappropriate

" Low-income participants said they felt unwelcome in higher-income, mostly white markets like the West Seattle Farmers Market"

What, all those white liberals don't welcome the poors in to buy $5 heirloom tomatoes and farm to table, Vashon Island lamb at $25 a pound? The horror.

"Anna Goren is a writer living in Seattle, WA focusing on food and social justice. "

So an advocate, not a journalist.

Simon

Posted Tue, Mar 18, 7:37 a.m. Inappropriate

Funny, drop a few thousand Vietnamese, Koreans and Chinese into an area and you know what you'll find? Great, fresh food. They must recognize a market and provide a solution on their own.

" I wonder what else is missing?"

What ever else undermines their argument.

Simon

Posted Tue, Mar 18, 11:56 a.m. Inappropriate

Here is a problem that is ripe for the various non-profits or area churches in Seattle to work together to solve.

Not to find a grocery store to move into the Delridge area (population count seems way too low), but to figure out a daily van or ride system to get these folks (with children in tow) to some of the grocery stores they want, especially if they must spend their monthly allocation for food all in one swoop.

Riding the bus for groceries with children in tow is too difficult, even when the buses are regular and go convenient places.

We can't expect the government to solve prolems in an economical way - they are incredibly wasteful.

Posted Wed, Mar 19, 10:03 a.m. Inappropriate

Your political "food desert" talking point is insulting to starving peoples around the world. I doubt those in sub-Sahara Africa would see Delridge as a food desert.

BlueLight

Posted Wed, Mar 19, 9:19 p.m. Inappropriate

From the map it appears that hardly any of Seattle is within walking distance (with little kids in tow) of a grocery store.

WSDW

Posted Thu, Mar 20, 9:47 p.m. Inappropriate

I recently read that for a grocery store to be able to stay in business, they need a population of 7000 or more within their immediate reach.

I doubt that any grocery stores in Seattle have 7000 people that can walk to their store from home and carry groceries home.

Staying in business requires customers, and generally requires a LOT of customers, which means customers with CARS.

The war on cars isn't subtle, but it sure is misguided.

Posted Thu, Mar 20, 10:10 p.m. Inappropriate

Joining the Food Desert is its hand maiden, the Common Sense Desert.

Djinn

Posted Fri, Mar 21, 6:32 a.m. Inappropriate

Ballard:
9,994 people per square mile
Seattle:
7,401 people per

I contend that if you live within a half-mile of a grocery store, that is in fact walking distance. These numbers will obviously only grow. There is no war on cars.

http://www.city-data.com/neighborhood/Ballard-Seattle-WA.html#ixzz2wbUVVTKL

jeffro

Posted Sun, Mar 23, 1:23 p.m. Inappropriate

9994 people per sq mile in BALLARD? Where did you find that stat?

I contend if I live within a half mile of a grocery store, I still won't walk there regularly. I don't shop every day, and buy more than a handful of groceries at a time, need a vehicle to haul them. Plus, although youthrul, I have arthritic hands do not carry bags with handles at all, too painful.

Posted Fri, Mar 21, 10:53 p.m. Inappropriate

So, why are some people trying to stop the Whole Foods in West Seattle? Good paying jobs and food!

Simon

Posted Fri, Mar 21, 10:56 p.m. Inappropriate

Where's the Fred Meyers on 85th?

Simon

Posted Sun, Mar 23, 1:19 p.m. Inappropriate

West of Greenwood, at 100 NW 85th. Can't miss it. And it is 'Fred Meyer'.

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