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Food deserts: In urban core, need for nearby stores is great

For Jamie Svejda and her 4-year-old son, Xavier, Taco Bell is a closer walk then the closest grocery store. Xavier helped his mom on a recent trip to Price Chopper.
For Jamie Svejda and her 4-year-old son, Xavier, Taco Bell is a closer walk then the closest grocery store. Xavier helped his mom on a recent trip to Price Chopper.

Sydnee Svejda’s thrill at the prospect of buying a wedge of watermelon is every mother’s dream.

“Can we get some? It’s on sale!” 10-year-old Sydnee pleads.

“Yes, but who’s going to carry it home?” asks her mother, Jamie Svejda, who is pushing a car-shaped shopping cart with her 4-year-old son, Xavier Arroyo, 4, in the driver’s seat.

Svejda is shopping for light food — not to be confused with “lite” food. The family can only buy what they can carry since they walk three-quarters of a mile from their home in the Budd Park neighborhood of Kansas City to reach the Cosentino’s Price Chopper at the intersection of bustling Independence Boulevard and Wilson Road.

Svejda owns two cars, but neither works and she can’t afford the insurance anyway. A single mom, she spends two hours a day riding the bus to and from her job as a receptionist at St. Luke’s Hospital. Sometimes Svejda manages to pick up a few grocery items from the Cosentino’s Apple Market on her bus route. It’s easier than taking Sydnee and Xavier with her on weekend shopping trips, which can take more than two hours. But the bus lets her off on the wrong side of the street and she’s been cursed at by speeding motorists as she tries to cross multiple lanes of traffic carrying unwieldy grocery bags in her arms.

Svejda lives in what experts call a food desert: She can walk to the Taco Bell at the end of her block more quickly and easily than she can walk to the neighborhood supermarket. Roughly 2.3 million U.S. households live more than a mile from a supermarket and do not have access to a car. An additional 3.4 million households are one-half to 1 mile from a supermarket and lack transportation.

Even before Svejda has wheeled the shopping cart out of the produce section on a recent Sunday afternoon, Xavier, a shy child with an impish grin, is sucking his index finger, a sign that he’s already tired.

“I used to take a collapsible stroller, even though he’s too big for it,” Svejda said, “but one time I loaded it up with too many groceries and the wheels started to pop off.”

Making food policy

As part of the Let’s Move! childhood obesity initiative championed by first lady Michelle Obama, the U.S. Department of Agriculture unveiled a Food Environment Atlas earlier this year to help communities identify food deserts.

The atlas — go to

— takes the issue of food access down to a county level. Click on Jackson County and you’ll find 3,288 households that are more than a mile from a supermarket and do not have access to a car. But the Kansas City Food Policy Coalition will take food access all the way down to the neighborhood level, using a grant from the Greater Kansas City Healthcare Foundation.

After mapping the locations of grocery stores, convenience stores, drugstores and liquor stores selling food, soup kitchens and food pantries, the coalition will “layer on” information, such as poverty rates and public transportation routes. It also will ask residents in some neighborhoods if they think they have access to healthy foods, or if they have the nutrition information and cooking skills to make healthy food choices once they are available.

“It will make it visual so people can readily see where efforts need to be concentrated,” said Dean Katerndahl, director of the Government Innovations Forum at the Mid-America Regional Council. “One of the efforts is to find more and better grocery stores within these communities, but it might also mean more farmers markets, urban agriculture or food distribution through churches.”

Food policy coalitions — typically made up of individuals, organizations, businesses and government representatives — have been around in the U.S. since the 1980s. But in the past two years the number has jumped from 40 to 400.

“For various reasons, people are coming together over food,” said Beth Low, director of the Kansas City coalition.

A former Missouri legislator, Low said food issues have suddenly gained broad appeal, perhaps because food access isn’t as politicized as other issues on the nation’s plate.

“I think the whole issue of healthy living and obesity has just become much more high profile so now there’s traction,” said Katerndahl, who serves on the coalition’s steering committee.

An urban supermarket design

Margaret May grew up in Ivanhoe, an inner-city neighborhood that runs from 31st Street to Emanuel Cleaver II Boulevard and from Prospect Avenue to the Paseo.

When May was a girl there were several African-American-owned grocery stores serving the community. But the last of those stores were shuttered nearly two decades ago.

“We are definitely a food desert because we don’t even have mom-and-pop type stores where we live, and the people living here are not of the means to get things they need,” said May, executive director for the Ivanhoe Neighborhood Council.

She attributes the loss of grocery stores to white flight to the suburbs, followed by middle-class black flight. Store owners followed the dollars, leaving residents who do not have big food budgets to fend for themselves.

“There are good people living in these abandoned areas,” May said, “and they deserve a full-service grocery store.”

These days there’s good news brewing in Ivanhoe.

Martin Florie, director of real estate for Aldi, said the discount grocery chain will break ground this spring to build a store on the northeast corner of 39th and Prospect. Projected opening date: November 2011. The 16,700-square-foot urban store will have a curb cut-out for buses, a feature designed to serve a community in which 35 percent of the 7,816 residents do not have access to a car.

With Aldi stores on the Paseo, Independence Avenue and at the intersection of Troost and Meyer, the site makes strategic sense for the chain. Also, because the discount chain’s stores are smaller than the typical supermarket, Aldi is a better fit for the smaller lots that dot the urban landscape.

The Aldi store is part of a $4 million-plus project that has been in the works since 2006 when the Kansas City Council approved a Tax Increment Financing redevelopment plan. The process of buying and cleaning up nearly 20 properties delayed the project but, May said, “I’m just so pleased we’re finally on this page.”

Virtual grocery store

Across the state line in Kansas City, Kan., Nathan Barnes is tired of waiting for the grocery stores to stake out a corner of his neighborhood, where 20,000 residents are stranded without a single grocery.

“I can safely say, ‘Welcome to the Sahara Desert of food deserts,’ ” said Barnes, county commissioner for District 1, an area that includes the Juniper Gardens housing project. “The problem is huge in Wyandotte County.”

Instead of wooing a typical brick-and-mortar store, Barnes is working to create a “virtual grocery store.”

“I figured if I can’t get them to come to us, we’d go to them,” he says. “You can’t place enough grocery stores on the ground to satisfy the overwhelming need.”

As a boy, Barnes delivered groceries from a Chinese grocery store using his bicycle. That experience spurred him to research grocery delivery services.

“I thought it was an original idea,” Barnes said good-naturedly. “But then I found the same idea splattered all over the Internet.”

A similar program already is serving Baltimore residents who order groceries online for pick-up once a week at the local library.

For his part, Barnes has been lobbying Washington legislators and organizing a steering committee in hopes of snagging some of the $400 million pledged by the Obama administration to eradicate food deserts.

Besides creating a place for residents to buy a carton of milk, a loaf of bread and fresh produce, Barnes envisions a virtual grocery store as a way to offer specialized nutrition information. For instance, customers with heart problems or diabetes could request foods that best suit their health needs.

“There’s a wealth of opportunities here. But right now we’ve got a lot of misplaced pieces to the puzzle,” he said. “It’s a matter of getting somebody to head this up.”

Paper or plastic?

Back at the Price Chopper on Independence Boulevard, a cashier rings up Jamie Svejda’s groceries.

“Paper or plastic?” the attendant asks.

Plastic — the bags have handles so they’re easier to carry.

Svejda pushes the shopping cart to the edge of the parking lot. A sign warns customers the lot is ringed by electronic security so customers aren’t tempted to roll them off the premises.

Svejda hands Xavier a single bag with the lightest items — frozen pizza and toaster strudel — which he slings over his back like a superhero cape.

Jamie and daughter Sydnee take five or six bags each, stopping every half block or so to rest their hands and redistribute the weight. When Sydnee’s hands turn red and begin to ache, she takes off her pink sweatshirt, strings the arms through the handles of her bags and ties them over her shoulder. Still, Sydnee admits now the watermelon seems a whole lot heavier than it did when she picked it up and put it into a cart at the store.