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

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.

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