Watching Philly Grocery Shoppers Is Changing How Cities Build Supermarkets – Next City

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Watching Philly Grocery Shoppers Is Changing How Cities Build Supermarkets

The city that pioneered food access initiatives continues to charge toward healthy eating.

Story by Jen KinneyTwitter

Photography by Joshua Albert

Published on Nov 14, 2016

Cassida Morris is caught between eras. Growing up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, she ate tomatoes off the vine and plucked apples for pie from her grandmother’s backyard. “We didn’t go to the store to buy produce,” she says, “because we grew our own.”

But when she moved to the city, got married and started a family on a limited income, it was a different story, a typical one: “You work, your kids go to school, I gotta feed you, but I’m not going to consider how to feed you nutritionally, because I’m stressed,” she recalls. “So you want chicken nuggets to be quiet? You can have chicken nuggets and French fries.” She tried to cook healthy for her children, but she definitely didn’t have the time to garden, and she knew something was missing. “So now you got guilt. Guilt and stress, because I know I should be feeding you a salad,” she says.

Today at 54, living in the Philadelphia neighborhood of Strawberry Mansion, Morris is thinking about how to eat more like her grandmother did. It started when she participated in her church’s annual Daniel Fast, abstaining for a month from meat, dairy, sweets and processed foods. Then she worked at a food pantry. Now she’s taken classes on juicing, on cooking with herbs, on diabetes prevention. She’s trying to be a role model for her two sons, grown now, and their six children.

But eating well on a fixed income, with a physical disability and no car, has made Morris’ grocery experience complicated. She prefers to shop at the Cousin’s Supermarket in South Kensington, but she only goes when she can get a ride. She walks to the Save-A-Lot near her home for staples, but its produce section is limited, most selections are processed, and it doesn’t have the rice cakes she likes. She buys those at Aldi. Twice a month, she takes the bus to Reading Terminal Market in Center City Philadelphia for “quick sale” produce that she slices and freezes for smoothies.

And, every now and then, Morris takes a 20-minute bus ride to a Fresh Grocer, 1.6 miles away near Temple University in North Philadelphia; it opened in 2009 thanks to a statewide program aimed at eliminating food deserts. A food desert is any low-income census tract where at least a third of residents live more than a half mile from a supermarket, as defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In 2004, Pennsylvania became the first state to create an incentive program focused on these underserved areas.

Cassida Morris browses the produce section of Save-A-Lot looking for fresh vegetables. 

When state lawmakers begin considering the Pennsylvania Fresh Food Financing Initiative (PAFFFI), Philly had comparable rates of poverty to other major urban areas in the U.S., but the second-lowest number of supermarkets per capita, according to a 2001 report by The Food Trust, a nonprofit food access advocacy organization based in the city.

“In fact, the greater Philadelphia region has 70 too few supermarkets in low-income neighborhoods,” wrote the report’s authors. That shortage meant poor residents were traveling far to shop — often by public transit — or relying on pricier, poorer quality selections at corner stores. They were also more likely to experience diabetes, heart disease and other health ailments related to diet.

“There is a direct correlation between diet-related diseases and lack of supermarket access,” the report concluded. The Food Trust recommended the creation of a public program that would improve public health by increasing healthy food access.

Lawmakers listened. PAFFFI launched in 2004 with $30 million from the state and a mandate to assist grocers with access to grants, loans and favorable financing deals to open up in food deserts. The program would be administered by Reinvestment Fund, a Philadelphia-based CDFI (community development financial institution).

By the time the program ended in 2010 after funding ran out, it had financed 88 new supermarkets across the state, including 31 in Philadelphia. The program was lauded and widely imitated, including by the federal government, which launched its own Healthy Food Financing Initiative in 2010, the same year the Pennsylvania program ended. To date, that program has spent more than $500 million trying to improve food access while another 125 programs exist at city, state and county levels, all developed after PAFFFI.

But while early reports proved the original thesis — that more nearby supermarkets would lead to improved health — the traditional food desert prognosis has since come under greater and greater scrutiny. Earlier this year, even the USDA questioned the logic, citing new research that demonstrates less of a link between supermarket proximity and health than previously thought. The report included the header, “Building New Supermarkets Is Not Enough.”

That’s in part because, as researcher Ben Chrisinger puts it, food deserts aren’t a geography, they’re an experience. Earlier studies relied heavily on maps, assuming people would abandon complicated shopping rituals like Morris’ and come to rely primarily on their newer, closer store. Evidence shows they don’t. Grocery shopping is a more personal experience than that, dictated not only by proximity but also by income, disability, education, role models and habit. The ability to eat healthy isn’t caused by one factor, it’s a whole ecosystem. Changing behavior often means overhauling all of it.

Take Morris. It’s not simply the distance, or her lack of a car, or her limited income that she’s had to overcome to eat healthier, though those are all factors. It’s decades of habit and culture, including the memory of her grandmother’s garden. “The problem is, I remember what food tastes like,” she says. “I don’t know what they are giving us now and calling it a tomato, but that is not a tomato.” It took Morris a long time to accept that she’d have to buy tomatoes and string beans and apples in the store — and that they wouldn’t taste as good as those just plucked from the backyard.

For her and for many Philadelphians, healthy food access continues to fluctuate. According to Reinvestment Fund, three years after PAFFFI ended, the number of people living in low supermarket areas in Philadelphia was cut in half. But supermarkets are a tough business; stores open and close, including at least 22 funded by PAFFFI. Between 2002 and 2014, Morris’ neighborhood went from being among the highest-need areas, to having good supermarket access, to falling back into the moderate access range after several stores shuttered.

Meanwhile, the standard workhorses of the low-income foodscape remain: discount supermarkets like Cousin’s, which have been selling affordable groceries without any bells or whistles since 1976. Compared to a higher-end store, the ceiling of the Cousin’s where Morris shops is lower, the lighting dimmer, the produce section more streamlined, less organic. There are no perks for eating healthy. But she still prefers it to the closer Fresh Grocer, the PAFFFI-financed store. “It’s cheaper, and I can get more,” she says.

While new evidence is prompting policymakers to think about the next generation of healthy food incentives — beyond simply opening supermarkets — Morris is thinking about the next generation too. Her son Louis, 31, his wife and their son, moved in with her last year. She wants to be a good role model. She got Louis to take the same diabetes prevention class at the YMCA, and now they try to work out together there three times a week. She even tried starting a garden this summer, and even though her efforts produced just one measly tomato, snatched up by squirrels, she wants to try again next year.

Eating healthier is more unlearning than learning, Morris acknowledges, a bit like gardening actually. After decades of trying to eat on the cheap, “now the garden of our minds has weeds in it,” she says. She lays out an imaginary garden with her hands and yanks out the intruders. “You can’t afford to eat healthy,” she plucks. “We’ll process the foods for you.” She’s trying to be a good gardener, but “that’s what we grow up in, it’s a mindset,” she says. “And trying to change that has been a monumental challenge.”

AN INTIMATE RITUAL

The Fresh Grocer where Morris shops a few times a month, on city thoroughfare Broad Street, looks like a typical suburban supermarket. Surrounded by a sea of parking spaces, the store’s entrance is always bustling. The sliding doors open into a colorful produce section, row after row of glistening vegetables hemmed on one side by a deli and cafe. A casual observer would never know the developers had to be enticed to locate in a part of town now booming with construction related to Temple University.

But back in 2001, when The Food Trust wrote its initial report, the area was lit up in red, indicating it was a neighborhood where low supermarket sales and low incomes overlapped. Morris’ current home in Strawberry Mansion was similarly scarlet, with an additional factor: Her neighborhood also had high rates of diet-related deaths, considered an area of greatest need.

“The map really helped engage folks around the importance of issue and its impact on health,” says Caroline Harries, associate director of The Food Trust. “I don’t think legislators had this issue on their radar like they do now.”

After presenting those maps to Philadelphia City Council, the nonprofit convened a task force to make policy recommendations for addressing the issue. Representatives from public health, economic development and the supermarket sector all tried to answer the question: Why weren’t grocers locating in these areas, and what support did they need to do so?

“What we essentially heard is that for a whole host of reasons, the cost of developing stores in these underserved areas is extraordinary, [including] land assembly, regulatory barriers, even things like security costs,” says Harries. “And while there are many incredible economic development programs out there, rarely if ever are they tailored to the needs of grocers themselves.”

State Representative Dwight Evans took up the cause, earmarking $35 million to attract stores. PAFFFI was born, and from a financing perspective, it was a success. Reinvestment Fund leveraged the state’s initial investment to secure $145 million in funding from public and private sources. The CDFI then worked with developers or grocery store operators to put together a unique combination of grants, tax incentives and one-time, flexible, low-cost loans for each new project. The Progress Plaza Fresh Grocer, for example, received a $750,000 grant and $7.6 million loan.

Reinvestment Fund’s role was to ensure that developers built a sustainable model, despite opening in a risky market. “Our goal is never to finance a business that will need ongoing subsidy,” says Donna Leuchten Nuccio, director of healthy food access at Reinvestment Fund.

The initiative was touted not only as a public health intervention, but also as economic development. In its policy recommendations, the task force noted that up to 25 percent of retail demand in urban neighborhoods was going unmet, meaning despite the larger startup costs, a strong market existed. There was also the promise of employment, and in this, the program was a great success. According to The Food Trust, by the time the program ended, 5,000 jobs were created or preserved in the 88 stores that opened across the state. The Fresh Grocer’s Broad Street location alone created at least 272 new full- and part-time jobs, 80 percent of which have gone to North Philadelphia residents to date.

Chrisinger is a postdoctoral research fellow at Stanford University, but was attending the University of Pennsylvania, living in Philadelphia and pursuing a PhD in city and regional planning, when he began thinking about how food access programs like PAFFFI worked.

Some incentivized supermarkets with grants and loans while others offered tax abatements, land incentives or zoning bonuses. But as far as he could tell, all of the programs had this in common with Pennsylvania’s: None required that stores incorporate any explicit health promotion features. And beyond opening up in underserved communities, they didn’t need to include any special consideration for low-income shoppers, for that matter. All PAFFFI-financed stores are required to accept SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits, but in Chrisinger’s survey of similar programs across the country, even that wasn’t a given.

“I was surprised,” says Chrisinger. The researcher began asking questions. Some studies had found that having supermarkets in a community is associated with a lower prevalence of obesity. The Food Trust points to studies that show proximity to supermarkets is associated with increased fruit and vegetable consumption. Chrisinger points to that verb: associated. “You couldn’t establish causality with this study design,” he says. This frustrated him. So instead of trying to measure those factors on a neighborhood scale, he began talking to the individual shoppers who live in food deserts.

“My fear was that because we weren’t asking people who were in these neighborhoods where we were building new stores what they were making of this new food access, that we weren’t going to get the full story, and possibly worse, we would possibly start to blame them for not getting healthier after all of these millions of dollars had been spent to build new stores,” he says. “Fresh Food Financing starts and ends with the store, and that’s only a small part of the story.”

So he stood outside of the Fresh Grocer on Broad Street and asked shoppers if he could follow them around the store. It was the middle of July, “hot as blazes outside in Philly,” says Chrisinger. It was nerve-racking to ask if he could observe such an intimate ritual. But once people got over the initial weirdness, they largely forgot him as they traced familiar patterns through the store. We’re creatures of habit, no more so than when it comes to food.

In conversations with 32 people recruited at random, Chrisinger found that habit played a strong role in shopping decisions, along with a host of other factors. The majority relied on that supermarket as their main shopping location, but they were nearly split between those who came from less than a mile away (19 people) and those who came from farther (13). In all, the mean distance his participants traveled was 1.9 miles. Morris travels only a little farther to her favorite grocery store: The Cousin’s supermarket is 2.2 miles from her house.

A third of these shoppers were receiving SNAP benefits, like Morris. Many also did not own their own cars. Some borrowed friend’s or family’s; some hired informal taxis called hacks — a strategy Morris also employs sometimes. Others had ridden the bus, sometimes multiple buses, and either planned on limiting their purchases to whatever they could take home on transit or on taking the free shuttle provided to customers who spend over $60. One woman in Chrisinger’s survey who had taken multiple forms of transit to the store was “devastated” to learn the shuttle would only travel in a 3-mile radius, he wrote. She’d planned on a large shopping trip, but it wouldn’t pan out if she had to carry her purchases home by herself. “See what we gotta go through. Goin’ shoppin’?” she asked.

“The assumption that someone is going to shop in their neighborhood for their grocery needs is kind of erroneous,” says Anne Palmer, a researcher at the Center for a Livable Future at Johns Hopkins University. “People on limited food budgets value food the same way everyone else does. They want quality food at affordable prices.” Even if programs like PAFFFI led to supermarkets in every underserved neighborhood, on any given day the closest store might not have the best price for eggs or milk or diapers. Palmer’s research found that SNAP users in particular are savvy shoppers, usually making one large grocery run a month, sometimes at multiple stores, often having researched sales in advance. The closest store might not have culturally appropriate options, like halal meats. For a host of reasons, shoppers just might not want to switch allegiances from wherever they shop now — even if it’s inconvenient.

Amanda Wagner, who works in the chronic disease prevention division of Philadelphia’s public health department, says the city recognizes that people don’t always get most of their food from the place that’s closest to them, “but we think it’s an equity issue to at least look at the opportunity to do that across Philadelphia.”

Surveys conducted by the city every three years show that while many Philadelphians in areas with few options for grocery shopping gained the opportunity to walk to a supermarket between 2010 and 2012, roughly the same number in those areas lost it between 2012 and 2014. In part because of the dissolution of one discount grocery chain, Bottom Dollar, 34,000 more people lived in areas with high poverty and low to no walkable access to healthy food retailers at the end of 2014. That measure includes corner stores, farmers markets and produce carts, but largely excludes community gardens, food pantries and CSAs.

In Morris’ neighborhood, food access slipped from 2010 to 2014. Even so, with her healthier eating goal, she’s sought to learn about herbs and soils and organics, buying more produce, and encouraging her children to do the same. And they are, but it’s far from seamless. Once Louis and his wife tried to walk the short distance to the Save-A-Lot while Morris watched their baby, she recalls. Eventually they made it home with produce, but not before their grocery cart broke and they had to call someone to pick them up.

Her other son “would prefer to eat fruits and vegetables over anything else,” Morris says. But with five children, his family budget is stretched too thin.

Cassida Morris adds up her grocery purchases on her phone to make sure she stays under budget while her son, Louis, looks at canned tuna. 

This tracks with what Palmer found in another study: On a limited income, buying healthier food can feel risky, even for those who really want to. Produce is more expensive per calorie, often takes longer to prepare, and is usually less filling than cheaper, higher-fat foods. Plus, “it’s not just the cost of food, it’s also the cost of wasting food,” says Palmer. If produce doesn’t get eaten before it goes bad, that’s money wasted.

All of that makes changing diets difficult, even when shoppers know they ought to for the sake of their health. On his way to the YMCA for a workout, Louis says he’s changed how he shops since taking the 16-week diabetes prevention class. “Oh have you,” his mother smirks from behind the steering wheel of a rented car, borrowed this week so Louis could take his wife out to the Cheesecake Factory for her birthday. He walks it back. He tries not to buy chips or other unhealthy foods, he says, but sometimes he does, because his wife wants them. Often, she brings that devil into the house herself. She has diabetes, but has a hard time resisting, and he has a hard time depriving her. Recently, with Halloween approaching, she came home with two big bags of candy. “It was cheap,” she said.

A RELEVANT PRODUCE SECTION

No one’s telling owner Jeff Brown his stores need to make people healthier or serve people on limited incomes. He just thinks it’s the right thing to do, for his customers and his business.

A fourth-generation Philadelphia-area ShopRite operator who has built his business in the city around opening successful stores in food deserts, Brown was one of the first grocers to receive funding through PAFFFI. He lives just a stone’s throw from posh Rittenhouse Square and its popular farmers market, and tries to ensure that the stores he opens in underserved neighborhoods also make eating healthy the easier option.

He lobbied the city for a new bus stop that will drop shoppers right at his Fox Street store in Northeast Philadelphia. That same location has an in-store nutritionist and a federally qualified healthcare center. When Brown noticed that the majority of prepared chicken sales were fried, he came up with “fire-grilled chicken” — whole butterflied birds grilled in an open pit under a big banner, right in front of customers, with no added sugar or fat. Now, at Fox Street, the ratio has flipped. Fire-grilled chickens make up 80 percent of sales.

Customers can still buy it fried, of course. It would be a bad business proposition if they couldn’t. They can still buy soda and chips and candy too. Brown has just made the healthy choice the more attractive one. “To me this should be the goal of change,” he says. “You make a change that’s worth someone’s while. They don’t feel deprived, they don’t feel like they’re making a sacrifice, they don’t feel like someone’s told them what to do.”

All of this, he says, is just responding to customers’ needs. He’s also found that even limited income shoppers would rather spend more money on produce their family will actually eat, so he’s made his produce merchandising more upscale. Recognizing that many of his customers immigrated from abroad, he sources products that are unique to each neighborhood’s demographics. The Fox Street store has a halal meat market, and with a large Caribbean and Gulf South population, sells four or five times as much seafood as his suburban stores might.

This makes business sense. The margins in the grocery store industry are notoriously thin — around 2 percent — so Brown says when large chains fail to provide Jamaican products in Jamaican neighborhoods or produce that’s essential to Mexican dishes in Mexican neighborhoods, “they lose all of the revenues from serving their customers with the food they want.”

“They’re not relevant to the consumers, so they end up doing less volume than they should,” he continues. “Inherently food desert stores are financially challenged to begin with, so you take a financially challenged deal and you deprive it of its natural revenues and you end up with a broken financial model.”

That means even with grants and loans and favorable financing, a store could fail if it doesn’t attend to customer desires. For that reason, Reinvestment Fund talks to potential operators about tailoring stores to community tastes in its negotiations. Brown and others I spoke to point to Apples and Oranges Fresh Market, a store that opened in a north Baltimore food desert in 2013. In its quest to make people healthier, the store didn’t sell fried foods or soda or cigarettes. It closed within two years.

Not all of Brown’s food desert stores were developed under PAFFFI, but they did all rely on a mixture of public and private support: a good lease from the landlord, federal New Markets Tax Credits and other tools to deal with financial gaps. Brown can do this because he’s an independent grocer, the owner of 13 stores in the Philadelphia area. Indeed, Philadelphia is a town of independent grocers. That’s one reason the state’s fresh food financing program was especially successful: Independent grocers can more easily navigate the complicated financing deals necessary to operate in food deserts and provide the tailored products customers want.

“Very large grocers, national firms essentially, have the same approach for every single supermarket they build. They’re really not set up to be local, hypercustomized,” says Brown. “Their organizational structure doesn’t really give them the opportunity to change how they operate in different situations.”

In Pittsburgh, on the other hand, where PAFFFI was less successful, the grocery sector is really dominated by one chain, Giant Eagle. “It’s a harder place for independent operators to open and be competitive,” says Leuchten Nuccio. “And so CDFIs, who are typically lending to independent operators, have less of an opportunity to have an impact.”

Today, when Brown thinks about having an impact, he’s increasingly considering factors other than store placement and product selection.

“In the early years, people would talk about ‘I don’t have fresh food, I don’t have food that’s quality, I don’t have food that’s in date, I don’t have the food that I buy,’ and then once you fix all those problems, then you find out there’s a whole bunch of other things that are affecting their lives,” he says.

Hence the nutritionists, and the healthcare centers. Because many of his customers were utilizing check cashing services and payday lenders, several of his locations now have in-store credit unions. They offer accounts with no monthly charge, no ATM charge, no check-writing charge, “so a person with no money can still have an account to cash a check into and not pay anything for that, like everyone else in America,” he says.

This year, in response to what Brown perceives as a need for entertainment options “that end well,” as he says, two locations will even experiment with an in-store radio station and jazz cafe. On a Friday night, a customer would be able to cash her paycheck, shop for groceries, store them in a chilled space and enjoy live music while eating dinner and sipping a beer.

One of those will be at Brown’s original food desert store on Island Avenue in South Philadelphia. Brown points to that store as evidence that the fresh food financing works, and that it’s improved Philadelphia in more ways than one. When that store was financed at the beginning of PAFFFI, the community was considered highly distressed, and qualified for New Markets Tax Credits. Planning a large expansion 10 years later, “the income in the community has risen so much it doesn’t qualify for any program,” says Brown. “So it worked.”

But even with the success on Island Avenue, poverty rates in the area remain high and just across Lindbergh Boulevard, there are plenty of properties still eligible for the same incentives Brown used. A single supermarket, after all, can only do so much.

“In the early years, people would talk about I don’t have fresh food, I don’t have food that’s quality, I don’t have food that’s in date, I don’t have the food that I buy, and then once you fix all those problems, then you find out there’s a whole bunch of other things that are affecting their lives.”

Despite opening a consulting nonprofit that advises other grocers on how to operate well in underserved communities, the grocer doesn’t know how replicable all of his tactics are. A lot of what Brown has managed to do is rooted in his personality, and his reputation. After all, his suburban stores are simply called ShopRites. In Philadelphia, though no sign on the building says it, the stores are known as Jeff Brown’s. When he works with clients, getting other supermarket CEOs to sit in a community meeting with hundreds of their potential customers, as he would with one of his own stores, sometimes they can’t hack it.

“They’ve never been in that environment before. They’ve never been accountable to someone who has $17,000 household income, that has 3 of the 4 kids have been incarcerated, and a single parent household. … They’re just extremely uncomfortable,” says Brown. “One of the things we learn on the consulting side, they might not be a good candidate for this work.”

The Food Trust and Reinvestment Fund also do national consultation and capacity building. And Reinvestment Fund is still helping to finance supermarkets, across the country and in Pennsylvania, just not at the same rate as during the heyday of PAFFFI. The CDFI is also thinking about how to ensure that the next generation of fresh food financing programs builds not only supermarkets but a new crop of customers.

“Access is the first step, and from there you can build on access. It is not a silver bullet,” says Leuchten Nuccio. Wary of burdening smaller, independent operators, Reinvestment Fund hasn’t typically tied its financing deals to health education or other requirements. But Leuchten Nuccio says the industry is increasingly providing nutrition services on its own. When a greater subsidy is available or a larger chain is involved, Reinvestment Fund has held grocers to community benefits agreements or mandated health programs. In one deal, Aldi received financing to open four locations on the condition that they give a grant or support a community program to provide nutrition education services in each. In other cases, the CDFI just facilitates partnerships, encouraging a local YMCA to hold their nutrition education program inside a new store.

“It doesn’t cost anything for the grocery store to have the YMCA do that program there, and it doesn’t cost anything for the YMCA to do the same program they were going to do but at the grocery store,” she says. Doing so can help stoke demand for healthy foods. Still, “there may be a small independent operator, that opening a store and managing a store is all that they’re going to be able to do.”

And food deserts, however you define them, persist. “There are definitely a few pockets in the city still in need of access, and tons if you look nationally and statewide. There’s still a really big need for food access in some markets,” says Leuchten Nuccio. “Some of those markets may not be able to support a full-service store, so the conversation gets to: What is the model to serve them?”

LISTENING TO YOUR COMMUNITY, AND YOUR BODY

Nykisha Madison thinks the answer lies in urban agriculture. She’s an organic farmer at Neighborhood Farms in West Philadelphia, an educator with nonprofit Urban Tree Connection, and a self-described tree-hugging, veggie-loving convert. When deciding where to site new farm stands for Urban Tree Connection, she says she goes on an empty stomach to a neighborhood she’s never been to before and tries to find something healthy to eat. “Food deserts, that’s what I’m after,” she says.

One of those stands is right outside the YMCA in North Philadelphia where Morris and her son Louis work out. Both completed their diabetes prevention course there last year, and in early September, Morris attended a class Madison taught on juicing and blending. The farm stand’s prices are competitive, often better than the supermarket: a dollar for a clamshell of tomatoes, $2 for a bundle of collards. Urban Tree Connection, which aims primarily to serve the city’s poorest neighborhoods, runs farm stands in wealthier neighborhoods too, but prices the produce higher. Madison says most of the time, patrons there don’t even ask the cost.

In her blending class, students are more cautious. Madison tells the dozen women assembled midday on a Wednesday that healthy eating isn’t a formula; it’s about respecting the interplay between what you eat and how you feel.

Morris, dutifully chopping ginger for a blending demonstration, wants to understand, “You say what works for you, how do I figure out what works for me?” She’s been diagnosed with asthma and anemia and arthritis. Should she go by looking at her diagnosis, she asks.

“When you start introducing things, listen to your body. Your body speaks,” says Madison. She got her start in healthy eating because of her church’s Daniel Fast too, and graduated to urban farming after her daughter was enrolled in a gardening program for kids. Her daughter recently spoke at a City Council hearing on urban agriculture, and Madison has become a staunch advocate too.

“When you go to churches, whatever spiritual institution you go to, everyone talks about being a good steward,” says Madison. “They tell you how to be a good steward over the church building. They tell you how to be a good steward over your community, but nobody tells you to be a good steward over your body. That’s what you came here with.”

Morris had a similar realization in her diabetes prevention class: People whose parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles all have diabetes have a hard time imagining they can do anything to avoid getting it too. That’s why education has emerged as such an important component of improving health for people living in food deserts. As Harries of The Food Trust puts it, it’s one thing to provide access to healthy foods and another to create demand for that access.

The Food Trust offers nutrition education in schools, at farmers markets, in grocery stores, corner stores and the YMCA. The city has helped fund the expansion of the YMCA’s diabetes prevention program that Morris and her son took. And they’ve also partnered to keep improving access in places that still have no supermarkets. Philadelphia has nearly 2,000 corner stores, and since 2004 nearly 600 of them have participated in The Food Trust’s Healthy Corner Stores Initiative. Owners get training from The Food Trust on sourcing and stocking healthy food; some receive new shelving and refrigeration. A select few participate in the Heart Smarts program, which brings Food Trust staff in-store to teach nutrition and cooking classes. The program has been replicated in other cities, including San Francisco.

But that program is now evolving. Not unlike Ben Chrisinger and the team at Reinvestment Fund, Amanda Wagner has come to the conclusion that bringing healthy shopping options to neighborhoods is only one piece of the puzzle. The initiative “was effective at getting owners to offer the healthier options but we’re still not sure what can make people more consistently, across the board, buy these healthy options,” Wagner says. For the upcoming year, the city and Food Trust will narrow their focus to 40 stores and try to source more community input on what stores should stock.

The Food Trust still runs a network of farmers markets, too, and participants in many of its classes (or ones the city sponsors) receive Philly Food Bucks, which increase the purchasing power of SNAP users. For every $5 SNAP users spend at farmers markets, they receive $2 in Philly Food Bucks to spend on fruits and vegetables. According to the nonprofit, 31 percent of Philadelphians currently receive SNAP; with this program, SNAP sales at farmers markets run by The Food Trust have increased by more than 375 percent. Morris uses her bucks at Madison’s farm stand in front of the YMCA, or at Reading Terminal Market, when she buys nearly out-of-date produce to freeze for smoothies — a trick she learned in her diabetes prevention class.

Cassida Morris compares prices in Save-A-Lot in North Philly.

But while Morris’ journey has been facilitated by stores and stands, classes and incentives, it’s been built on relationships and responsibilities. It was while working at a soup kitchen, where she had to devise the most nutritious and filling meals she could on the smallest budget, that she began to recognize how much she already knew about eating healthy. Her church’s Daniel Fast provided her a reason to learn more recipes, and find more stores that stock good products. She started working out at the YMCA when the soup kitchen closed. The woman who did her intake also happened to be teaching the diabetes prevention class; she urged Morris to join. Morris signed up for Madison’s blending class after meeting at the farm stand.

Every relationship led to another relationship, including ours. Morris and I met at the blending class. The first time we got together, I asked if she knew what a food desert was. “No, but I can put the two words together,” she laughed. It’s stayed on her mind. Every time we talk she tells me she’s been asking her neighbors about their food access, whether they feel they live in a food desert. Some, especially those with cars, say no. Others say yes, or maybe, or sometimes, depending on what it is you’re trying to buy.

Morris says, if she had to choose just one supermarket to shop at, she’d still choose Cousin’s, 2 miles away, over the slightly closer Fresh Grocer. Cousin’s, which received no fresh food financing and hosts no nutrition education programs, still has the best prices and produce for her needs. I share with her what I’m learning — about the thin margins in the supermarket business, about fresh food financing, about healthy corner stores — and I ask what she would tell policymakers who wanted to improve healthy food access in her neighborhood.

“You’re talking about changing culture,” she says. “It has to be not just education, it has to be modeled.” She points to Michelle Obama and her White House garden, and her own attempts at gardening, fostered by a supportive neighbor with a green thumb. “Change is slow, but it needs to be consistent.” She laughs, “You have to keep going, like me and my little tomato.” In fact, she told me a few weeks later, just when she thought that plant was dead, seven more little tomatoes flowered on the vine.

This article is part of Next City's Philly in Flux series made possible with the support of the William Penn Foundation.

Jen Kinney is a freelance writer and documentary photographer. Her work has also appeared in Philadelphia Magazine, High Country News online, and the Anchorage Press. She is currently a student of radio production at the Salt Institute of Documentary Studies. See her work at jakinney.com.

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