:: JUNE 2, 2004
Inner-city residents campaign for a grocery store
By DANIEL STURM
Rebecca Bahar-Cook said she loves living in downtown Lansing, where
she raises her 3-year-old son and 17-month-old daughter. But the self-employed
mother really wishes there were a grocery store. “I need to drive
to East Lansing to get good meat and fresh and healthy food,”
The lack of a regular grocery store motivated Bahar-Cook to join a downtown
Lansing and Westside initiative to enhance people’s access to
nutritious and affordable groceries.
Thomas, a Michigan State University doctoral student in sociology,
said researchers have coined the term ‘food deserts’
to describe the problems of inner-city neighborhoods. Thomas said
the trouble of accessing food is often exacerbated by a disability,
the lack of childcare or the lack of a reliable car.
at the North West Lansing Healthy Communities Initiative are discussing
possible options such as grocery stores, food co-ops, farmers’
markets, buying clubs and restaurants.
“There is not a single full-service grocery store in the area,”
said Initiative director Ron Whitmore. He said that the existing party
stores don’t offer the variety of fresh foods that people typically
look for. The closest full-service stores are several miles away.
Whitmore said he believes many people in the area aren’t eating
well because they’re eating highly processed foods. He said the
initiative plans to launch a door-to-door canvassing project this summer,
hitting at least a 1,000 of 7,500 households, to verify this assumption
and find out more about residents’ grocery needs.
The lack of a grocery store has an especially harsh effect upon downtown
Lansing’s 25 percent low-income population, some of whom depend
on public transit, Whitmore said. But he emphasized that wealthier residents
were also being underserved. People were forced to drive their cars
perhaps more than 10 miles in order to shop at the less expensive Save-A-Lot
chain store, or the Food Co-op or Better Health Food store in East Lansing.
Bahar-Cook, who lives one block south of Lansing’s St. Lawrence
Hospital, said she would prefer walking a mile to get fresh foods to
putting her kids in the car and driving all the way to East Lansing.
She said that she occasionally takes her children for a walk to the
City Market. However, this was no solution because the product selection
was too small. “It’s fun to walk with my children,”
Bahar-Cook said. “We walk and talk, and we look at things, whereas
in the car I have to concentrate on driving.”
a Michigan State University doctoral student in sociology, said researchers
have coined the term “food deserts” to describe the problems
of inner-city neighborhoods. Thomas said the trouble of accessing food
is often exacerbated by a disability, the lack of childcare or the lack
of a reliable car. He said food insecurity was more often found among
low-income individuals and renters, rather than homeowners. Moreover,
research shows that proximity to a grocery store impacts the amount
of fresh vegetables and fruit people consume.
Jacob McCarthy/City Pulse
Aaron Krueger harvesting at Giving Tree Farm.
survey data provided by the Allen Neighborhood Center in the summer
of 2003, Thomas was able to prove that the neighborhood had a problem
with “food security.” The U.S. Department of Agri-culture
tracks food security as a measure of people’s access to food,
ranging from zero percent (best) to 100 percent (worst).
Thomas found that roughly 30 percent of Allen Neighborhood residents
are “food insecure,” compared with an 8 percent average
in Michigan, and a 10 percent average in the United States.
The sociologist said it’s difficult to determine how many northwest
Lansing residents are food-insecure without having access to survey
data. From looking at northwest Lansing census data, Thomas said this
area appears to be more diverse than the Allen Neighborhood, because
more residents had higher incomes.
Whitmore said that he thought improving access to fresh and healthy
foods might be difficult due to this socio-economic diversity. During
the last several weeks, food task force members have debated the issue
but haven’t yet found a solution: Should they aim for a store
that sells locally-grown and perhaps higher-priced food items or a chain
store carrying less expensive products that are industrially processed
and less nutritious?
Whitmore said he believes it’s important to balance these interests,
given that one in four area households are below the poverty line. Ideally
there would be several grocery stores, of which at least one was organic.
“You need to find a way to meet the grocery needs of both of ends
of the spectrum,” Whitmore said.
Other members expressed doubts as to whether recruiting a grocery chain
that carried less expensive products would be worth pursuing, given
the health implications associated with many “cheaper” processed
Marty Heller, a Research Associate for the C.S. Mott Group for Sustainable
Food Systems in Lansing, said he believes this is a chicken-and-egg
problem. Heller said that with a little culinary knowledge and some
time at home, one could easily eat cheaper and healthier with simple
whole food ingredients. But Heller admitted this becomes an added challenge
when people don’t even have access to unprocessed whole foods.
In an effort to tackle such educational challenges, both the North West
Lansing Healthy Communities Initiative and the Allen Neighborhood Center
have applied for and received grants from Michigan State University’s
C.S. Mott Sustainable Food Systems Group.
Barbara Mutch, the group’s program leader, said that the chair
of her department has formed partnerships with 12 projects in Michigan,
located in Lansing, Detroit, Ypsilanti, Grand Rapids and on the Upper
Mutch said the best educational approach for improving people’s
access to healthy food would be to conduct a food security assessment,
and then launch practical projects, rather than preaching to people.
Mutch said children are often rejecting their school lunches when vegetables
appear on the menu, because they’re no longer familiar with them.
But if community gardening were part of their curriculum, for instance,
children would quickly embrace the idea of eating something they’d
actually grown. And there’s another benefit to this approach.
“Some children will take the seeds home, and their parents will
support the project and perhaps turn their backyards into gardens.”
The North West Lansing Healthy Communities
Initiative’s Food Systems team meets on June 16 from
5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. at the Scott House, 125 W. Main St. Call (517)
Barbara Mutch of MSU’s C.S. Mott Group for Sustainable
Food Systems can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Wildflower Organic Farm, Bath. Call Phil Throop at (517) 641-4761.
Giving Tree Farm, Lansing. Call (517) 482-8885.
MSU Student Organic Farm
Learn more about growing food in urban areas and community gardening
in Cuba at www.bothends.org.
gardens is one of many ideas discussed by the North West Lansing Healthy
Roberta Miller, who directs the Greater Lansing Community Gardens Project,
agreed that the North West Lansing area doesn’t have enough community
gardening space, given that there is only a small 12-member project
on the corner of Martin Luther King Boulevard and Oakland Street.
Miller, who runs 20 community gardens in Lansing and East Lansing, said
she’s already begun to identify additional locations and would
like to finalize land arrangements quickly, so that there can be more
community gardens next year.
Garden space will be available for everyone who doesn’t have a
garden at home. The program is especially aimed at urban residents whose
property lots are small, making gardening often impossible due to lack
of proper sunlight.
Miller said that it’s very possible to compensate for the lack
of a grocery store by growing one’s own produce. “It’s
wonderful to have fresh produce in season that’s tasty and nutritious.
You can walk out to harvest lettuce, and then walk back to the house
to make a sandwich or salad that’s pretty fresh.“
The Garden Project charges a $5 donation for people who want a second
plot. It’s funded by the City of Lansing, the City of East Lansing,
Ingham County, the Crop Walk and the Greater Lansing Food Bank. The
project provides everything home gardeners need to grow and raise their
own food, such as seed, seedlings, hoses, tools, organic fertilizers,
tilling and garden plots.
The concept of urban farming is increasingly endorsed by communities
across the United States. During the past 20 years, New York City has
opened a thousand community gardens on public land and 18 public markets
in which to sell their produce.
In addition to creating community gardens and attracting one or more
grocery stores, neighborhood activists are discussing the possibility
of establishing a food co-op in downtown Lansing. Whitmore said the
advantage of a food co-op is that it could meet the needs of the entire
spectrum of residents because it would be owned and controlled by its
members. “You can offer the high end products that wealthier people
want and at the same time put in place a sliding scale pricing system,
or offer lower-priced processed foods to meet the needs of lower income
Whitmore said that even though the East Lansing Food Co-op’s current
priority is to expand in East Lansing rather than open another store
in Lansing, he believes ELFCO could undertake small steps with the long-term
goal of establishing a branch in downtown Lansing.
“They could open up a small branch at the City Market, help a
group get started with a buying-club in the area, or they could do a
once-a-week delivery,” Whitmore said.
Attracting more local farmers to sell their produce at the City Market
was another idea for improving the quality of life in downtown.
Phil Throop, the owner of Wildflower Organic Farm, welcomed the City
Market’s new rent arrangement that offered parking space for a
reasonable $10 per lot every Saturday: “That’s pretty inviting
for local growers.” He suggested providing the City Market master
with a list of growers so that he could send out letters to invite local
Throop delivers produce to the Meridian Farmer Market and restaurants
and grocery stores, but said he’s considering the City Market
option. The Bath organic farmer has also begun signing people up for
a farm produce subscription. Participants purchase a share of the season’s
produce for $425 and pick up their weekly 10-pound dividend at the farm.
If a customer doesn’t need 10 pounds per week, he or she can split
this share with another person.
The North West Lansing Healthy Initiative supports the idea of community-supported
agriculture. Whitmore said that the Giving Tree Farm CSA recently established
a drop-off site at the Letts Community Center on 1220 W. Kalamazoo St.,
where subscribers can pick up their fresh produce once a week.
At their last meeting, group members discussed the possibility of attracting
a Mobile Market to Lansing, such as the truck converted into a grocery
store by the People’s Grocery in Oakland, Calif. People are invited
to share their creative ideas at the next meeting on June 16. The taskforce
is still in the information-gathering process.
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