Health & Fitness

A grocery divide: Why do so many stores east of Troost lack healthy food?

Correction: An earlier version of this story named the wrong shopping center housing Metro Thriftway.

Denise Brunston lives miles east of Troost Avenue, but when she goes grocery shopping she heads west. Far west.

Past the stores that are more convenient to her home and over to the Cosentino’s Price Chopper in Brookside.

“It’s just a part of life,” says Brunston, a chemist who is black. “If you want the best of something, you’ve got to go where the white people are. This includes groceries.”

From the moment shoppers enter that store, like others west of Troost, they are greeted with a vibrant smorgasbord of colorful, fresh produce.

But on Brunston’s side of town, just inside the double doors at the Blue Parkway Sun Fresh Market, tiers of assorted Lay’s potato chips beckon. Across the aisle, boxes of Kool-Aid and gallon jugs of Best Choice fruit punch tower 6 feet high over a few displays of healthier options.

Customers must walk back 100 feet before they encounter the produce section.

“This is our normal,” Brunston says. “It’s frustrating. What does that mean for us, for our kids when our own stores push those kinds of foods?”

In a review of grocery stores east and west of Troost — the city’s historic racial dividing line — The Star found similar disparities in variety and quality.

Most grocers deciding to locate east of Troost and north of 95th Street in Kansas City tend to stock less variety, cheaper quality and less nutritious food than those west of Troost.

A few years ago, the East Side was plagued with food deserts — areas where residents did not have access to fresh produce and other healthy options. Those deserts are disappearing, experts say, as more stores move in. Food inequality, however, and the socio-health problems that go with it, continue to thrive.

Some in the business say the discrepancy is all about supply and demand. But others say these stores’ approach runs counter to national trends showing that an agreeable atmosphere and better food quality are also sound business moves. And the new Lipari Bros. Sun Fresh off Linwood Boulevard, an outlier on the otherwise deprived East Side, seems to be proving those trends correct.

What do customers want?

For a study in contrasts between the typical East Side grocery store and the west, head into Marsh’s Sun Fresh Market in Westport, with its floral shop, sushi bar, pharmacy and ample supply of services and amenities.

Buying fresh fish? Talk to the fish manager, a jovial, bouncy man who says he’s “been in the fishing business for decades” and is ready to answer questions about the fresh salmon, shrimp, scallops or any other of the half dozen sea species he has on ice.

There is no such manager at Blue Parkway, and if there were, you could only talk about the buffalo and catfish, the only fresh fish offered. Want salmon or shrimp? Frozen section is down the aisle.

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West of Troost Avenue, Marsh’s Sun Fresh Market in Westport offers a salad bar, fruit and flowers near the entrance. Jill Toyoshiba jtoyoshiba@kcstar.com

At the Sun Fresh in Westport, local brands like Shatto Milk Co. and The Roasterie aren’t just present, they’re bountiful. Shatto has more than a dozen types of milk, with flavors including coffee, almond and cotton candy. In addition to prepackaged Roasterie coffee on the shelves, a kiosk at the end of an aisle allows customers to fill bags with whole beans from a dispenser.

Neither Shatto nor The Roasterie is available in East Side grocery stores.

Kim Nagel, the store director at the Blue Parkway Sun Fresh, 4209 E. 50th Terrace, says that while stocking certain foods may sound good, there’s more to maintaining a successful grocery store.

“You can pick apart any store that you want to on what they have or don’t have, but it’s about if people request these things or not,” Nagel says. “We’re going to give our customers what they want. Not just what looks good.”

Nagel says supply and demand and the demographics of the community have to be taken into consideration.

“For our location, we are very good,” he says. “You have to understand, we have a different demographic than Westport.”

He mentions how he tried to stock more no-salt products. “Those items are very slow-moving. And if people aren’t buying it, it just sits on the shelves and goes to waste.”

It’s why, Nagel says, he showcases unhealthy foods. “Those items have to be high volume. If it’s going on a display, I have to be able to sell cases of an item a week, not just a couple of packages.”

Bob Smith, the Westport Sun Fresh store director who has been in the grocery business for decades, says part of the reason his store can offer such a variety is the location and clientele.

“This store is the most diverse operation I’ve ever been associated with,” Smith says.

“We’ve got folks from wealthy areas like Fairway and Brookside shopping here, and also folks that are destitute and have a lot less money. … Every operation is influenced by the households it serves. You’ve got to have the customer base bringing in the volume and the profitability if you want to be able to offer a greater variety.”

One East Side grocery store has found that the customer base may want more than anyone expected.

‘The store everyone wants to come to’

When Brunston first walked into the East Side’s new Lipari Bros. Sun Fresh Market in the redeveloped Linwood Shopping Center this summer, she was startled.

“The first thing I saw was a salad bar,” Brunston says. “I was surprised. To be honest, it almost felt out of place.”

Beyond the salad bar, cheery, bright lighting was shining over displays neatly stocked with options rarely seen on the East Side — ripening mangoes and striped plantains, juniper-colored bunches of loose leaf spinach, poblano peppers and tomatillos.

On the left, a refrigerator stocked fresh herbs, pre-packaged salads and even the trendy, millennial-favored health drink, kombucha.

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The Lipari Bros. Sun Fresh Market opened in June in the redeveloped Linwood Shopping Center. File photo

The long-awaited grocery store, at 3110 Prospect Ave., was billed by developers, city council members and community activists as the answer to the East Side’s decades-long food desert plight. In a way, it stands as a symbol of Kansas City’s commitment to East Side revitalization and equity.

The Linwood Sun Fresh is the first store east of Troost to offer certain amenities that could previously only be found on the west side. It’s the first to offer fresh fish outside of catfish or buffalo. Shoppers can now purchase fresh, on-the-ice shrimp, salmon, tuna steaks, crab legs and more.

These new flourishes all happened, co-owner John Lipari says, because of the community.

“When we were planning the store, my wife and I, we’d go out and we had community meetings. We’d go and sit with people and listen to the things they wanted,” Lipari says. “And they told us, ‘We’d like to have a seafood section, a flower section. We’d like to have somewhere to be able to sit and have our breakfast.’ So I told them, ‘Well, we’re going to have it.’”

In the months since the store opened in June, Lipari says he’s found his customers to be even more health-conscious than expected. “I’ve got an organic produce department now,” he says. “I didn’t have that before.”

Organic items can be expensive at times, and the options don’t always fly off the shelves, but Lipari says that as long as customers show enough of an interest, the supply will stay.

“I want to make this the store that everyone wants to come to. If enough people come to me and ask for it, I’m going to try and get it.”

But the store might be a long drive or bus ride for customers who live farther south. Like Brunston, many East Side shoppers searching for quality head to Brookside.

‘It’s frustrating’

Living on The Paseo, 26-year-old Sean Dennie says his most convenient grocery store is the Metro Thriftway at the Metro Plaza Shopping Center on East 63rd Street.

Yet when it’s time to go shopping, Dennie drives to the Brookside Price Chopper.

A bachelor, Dennie says he pretty much keeps his dinner menu simple. “A lot of chicken and potatoes,” he says with a laugh. In theory, the Thriftway should be the one-stop shop he needs.

“That Thriftway stinks,” Dennie says as he picks up a sack of potatoes from the vegetable bin in Brookside.

The tiled floors at the Thriftway are dingy. The grouting running along the bottom of the cooling stations housing meats and produce is worn.

“You walk in there and, you just,” Dennie pauses. “You don’t see this,” he says, motioning to the Price Chopper aisles around him.

The director of the Metro Thriftway refused to give his name and declined to comment.

Marlana Dickerson, another East Side resident shopping in Brookside with her young daughter, said she’d like to stay east of Troost to get basic things like fresh fish, “but there isn’t any,” she says.

“It’s frustrating,” says Janay Reliford-Davis, another East Sider shopping at the Price Chopper, “having to travel out of your way and go elsewhere to go to a decent store and get good food.”

Other than the Sun Fresh stores, nearly every other grocery store on the East Side is a discount store, such as a Save-a-Lot or Aldi.

“I like the idea that they’re there,” Brunston says of the discount stores. “It’s affordable food for people that need it. But I don’t want to buy things that are wrapped in plastic” she says, in reference to Aldi’s produce selection, which packages items such as tomatoes, Brussels sprouts and lettuce.

“Isn’t that the point of buying fresh produce? That you can look at the banana, you can look at the green pepper, at the onion, at the carrot? When something’s wrapped in plastic, you can’t do that. You don’t know what you’re going to get.”

Still, it can be argued that discount stores like Aldi are doing more, faster to close the food inequality gap than big-box retailers.

Last month, aiming to take on upscale grocers like Whole Foods, Aldi announced an aggressive campaign to expand its natural, organic and fresh food offerings by 40 percent.

It’s a decision that runs in lockstep with current food trends. A 2017 U.S. Department of Agriculture study found that consumer demand for organically produced goods continues to grow in double digits annually.

Aldi, based in Germany, also announced plans to spend $5 billion over the next four years to build 700 new stores in the U.S. and remodel more than 1,300 with brighter lights, bigger aisles and less-cluttered shelves.

The changes are just the latest for Aldi, which in the past decade, through modernizing its stores and offering better quality food, has transformed from an oft-maligned chain to one of the fastest growing grocers in the world.

“There is a lot of data out there that shows that healthy food is profitable,” says Kara Lubischer, an assistant extension professor at the University of Missouri and the founder of Stock Healthy, Shop Healthy, which partners with small grocers to provide healthier food.

That means working as closely with the community as the grocers themselves to get consumers to want to buy healthier (and sometimes more expensive) foods.

“We start with the demand first,” Lubischer says. “Bringing together community coalitions and community partners and engaging customers in the conversation” to heighten interest in healthy foods. Then, Lubischer says, Stock Healthy, Shop Healthy teaches retailers how to adequately meet those needs.

Lipari says he and his team did their own canvassing around the community, to surprising results. “We asked customers if they thought bringing a nutritionist to the store once a month to teach shoppers how to cook, eat and shop healthier would do any good in this area. Come to find out, it absolutely would.”

Nagel of the Blue Parkway Sun Fresh, on the other hand, says the idea hasn’t made its way to his desk. “There’s always room for improvement with any store,” he says. “But there just hasn’t been that big of a demand here for change.”

A question of health

Having both knowledge of healthier foods as well as adequate exposure to them is paramount, studies say.

In 2011, after 15 years of studying the dietary habits and overall health of Americans, the Journal of the American Medical Association determined access to grocery stores — or lack thereof — had no connection to healthier diets. Instead, the bigger factors were knowledge about nutritional foods and access to them.

Nationwide, the black obesity rate is 51 percent higher than that of whites, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The diabetes rate is 77 percent higher, according to the National Institute of Health.

Locally, according to a 2015 500 Cities Project survey, East Side neighborhoods are afflicted with diabetes at nearly four times the rate as those west of Troost. The East Side also has double the rate of high blood pressure.

Lubischer suggests that stores place signs or “shop-talkers” to draw attention to the healthier items on the shelves and pair those healthy items with recipe cards to give ideas for meals.

“Turning those kiosks into taste tests or food demos that allow customers to try a new, healthy product is an option,” she says. Grocery stores around the nation have been making concentrated efforts to make their stores healthier.

“In my opinion, people want healthy food. They know this is important,” Lubischer says. “But food comes third. Safety and housing come first for a lower income community. … Grocery stores should work with their communities to make eating healthier a viable option.”

A few years ago, Brunston was talking with her mother about foods she eats now — sushi, snapper, whiting — foods she was never exposed to growing up. Her mother shared a mind-boggling memory: She did not know what broccoli was until she was an adult.

“My dad was a retired respiratory therapist at Truman,” Brunston says. “And one day they had a potluck at work and someone brought broccoli. And he came home to my mom and was like, ‘You should try to cook this.’”

Brunston continued: “That day my father brought home the broccoli, she told me that was the first time she’d ever had it. … She grew up in a poor family, ate a lot of beans and rice growing up. She just never got exposed to it. I couldn’t believe it.”

“Being healthier people, better people. It starts in the house. It starts in the mindset,” Brunston says.

And, it seems, in the grocery store, too.

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