What happens when there is food everywhere, but nothing to eat?
That’s the question that people living in San Francisco’s Tenderloin have asked for years. The downtown neighborhood counts more than 70 small corner stores in an area spanning less than half of a square mile, yet there is not one full-service grocery market within a mile of the community’s boundaries. (To see the neighborhood and hear from locals, watch the video embedded at the top of this story.) Grape soda is omnipresent, grapes more elusive. Many of the stores sell alcohol and cigarettes more than food — and place their offerings accordingly, with Marlboro displays and coolers dominating prime front-of-store real estate. But for the nearly 20,000 low-income immigrants who live in the Tenderloin alongside seniors on fixed incomes and families struggling to get by, there is no real alternative. These San Franciscans can’t afford markets in nearby neighborhoods where shoppers don’t flinch at a $9 bottle of cold-pressed juice.
Neighborhoods like the Tenderloin are often referred to as “food deserts,” but an increasing number of public health experts say the popular moniker has it wrong. These experts propose a different term for these areas, which often claim the highest rates of obesity, chronic disease and alcohol abuse.
“It’s actually more accurate to call them food swamps,” says Susana Hennessey Lavery, an educator with San Francisco’s public health department, “because they are swamped with a lot of food, but not much that is healthy.”
Enter Healthy Retail SF, a program designed to help retailers in the Tenderloin and other high-poverty neighborhoods transform their markets into places that offer a variety of affordable and healthy food options. (To see a transformation unfold, watch the video at the top of page.) Modeled after a program first pioneered by the nonprofit Food Trust in Philadelphia, Healthy Retail SF aims to meet consumers and store owners where they are. “The program is like a stool with three legs,” explains Lavery. “The first leg is business operations, which includes how to have a business plan, use a POS [point-of-sale] system, how to stock and maintain produce. Because it’s not like alcohol and tobacco, it doesn’t just sit on a shelf. It needs to be handled every day, trimmed, watered, rotated.”
The second leg is about appearances. The store must be reoriented so it looks less like a liquor store and more like a grocery store. That’s a big job, involving new equipment and shelving and signage. The owners have to physically make space for the produce and other healthier foods. The city program offers support on that end too, donating racks, cases and refrigeration equipment to participating stores on the condition that they agree to experiment with selling good-for-you options for at least three years.
“We have signage, nutrition shelf displays, and we take down the majority of alcohol and tobacco ads, as well as all ads under five feet within the store so children won’t be exposed to it,” says Lavery.
“Over time, the store will gradually see a shift. What happens is mothers will start coming into the store who might not have come in otherwise because they are now able to buy products that are produce or natural foods.”
Larry Brucia is a private consultant who designs and builds independent grocery stores. The city commissioned his company, Sutti Associates, to work with stores participating in the Healthy SF program.
“We don’t tell them to take anything out of the store,” Brucia says. “By creating more efficient use of space and adding healthy products to the store, we are automatically increasing the ratio of healthy to unhealthy foods. Over time, the store will gradually see a shift. What happens is mothers will start coming into the store who might not have come in otherwise because they are now able to buy products that are produce or natural foods.”
Brucia encourages stores to gradually reduce the amount of real estate given to alcohol and tobacco products so that eventually the addictive stuff occupies less than 20 percent of shelf space.
The third leg of the program is community engagement, and it’s critical, says Lavery. Before a store is reset, community activists are brought in to survey the neighborhood in a variety of languages to find out what kinds of healthy food people want to see in the store. The Tenderloin survey revealed that people are traveling about a mile to the nearest grocery option and collectively spending nearly $900,000 each month at stores outside of the community. “What we’re trying to do is bring some of that money back into the community to the local stores,” says Ryan Thayer, who oversees the community engagement process with Jessica Estrada.
Estrada and Thayer work with eight resident community activists who they call “food justice leaders” to market the newly available healthy foods. They distribute door hangers, hold public cooking demonstrations, and offer lessons on how to cook on a budget. “If you change the store and the community doesn’t know, what good does it do?” says Estrada.
Since the program launched in 2011, nine stores have been reset in the Tenderloin and other San Francisco neighborhoods. Another three to five transformations are slated for the coming months.
“We’re seeing a general shift,” says Thayer. “You see more produce in the windows. And it’s not just the stores that we’re working with. We’re creating momentum because other merchants are seeing that they can make money. They see people actually want to make healthy food purchases here.”
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