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Poor Seattle Neighborhoods Still Lacks Access to Fresh Food

  • No easy access to fresh groceries in many parts of Seattle
    By Jennifer Langston
    Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 5/1/08
    Straight to the Source

With two new supermarkets anchoring planned condo buildings, industry standards would say West Seattle has reached a saturation point for grocery stores.

Tell that to Maggieh Rathbun. To buy fresh food, the carless Delridge resident has to spend hours on the bus or climb hills as steep as ski jumps.

It's easier to find fried chicken gizzards than a piece of fruit in the quickie marts lining the 3-mile Delridge Way corridor.

That's one of many Seattle neighborhoods that University of Washington researchers found have no access to a grocery store within a 30-minute bus ride. In wealthier single-family areas, such as west Ballard or along Lake Washington, walking to buy food often isn't easy.

That makes it hard to combat climate change and create a more livable city. For lower-income residents without a car, poor transit access to grocery stores can be an immediate barrier to healthful eating.

"It depends on what kind of day I'm having with my diabetes to decide whether I'm just going to make do with a bowl of cereal or try to go get something better," said Rathbun, 55.

After passing a local food initiative this week, the Seattle City Council joined other cities in weighing how strongly local governments should promote access to healthy food for all residents.

Not everyone is convinced. Two council members objected to the potential costs and the prospect of government overstepping its role. Mayor Greg Nickels has questioned some ideas, though he announced help for farmers markets Wednesday.

Other measures being considered here -- mostly studies -- are baby steps compared with more aggressive efforts across the country. In Pennsylvania, for instance, the state contributed $30 million in seed capital to lure grocery stores to low-income neighborhoods. New York City recently passed legislation to permit 1,000 "green carts" -- sidewalk vendors selling fresh fruits and vegetables.

As part of a national "healthy corner store" movement, communities have provided funding for coolers and put up yard signs supporting convenience stores willing to gamble on celery, plums or butternut squash.

"Unless cities begin to realize they have a role to play in ensuring access to healthy food, then we're going to keep stumbling along," said food policy expert Mark Winne, who says the marketplace never serves everyone equally.

"We see this in urban America time and time again," he said. "There's all these gaps and failures which argue for public intervention or at least public-private partnerships, and food is one of those areas."

In South Park -- a community the UW study found had poor access to groceries and a high concentration of residents at risk for hunger -- one discount food store caters to the growing Hispanic population, offering a small selection of produce such as cactus and tomatillos.

Marra Farm grows seasonal vegetables, many of which are donated to the local food bank. But walking to the nearest Red Apple Market requires dodging a freeway cloverleaf of onramps.

"We need a big store out here," said Raleigh Freeburg, a retired veteran who takes the bus or walks. "There's plenty of people here; it's just that they're immigrants and lower class."

Health and diabetes educator Antionette Angulo, who works for Sea Mar Community Health Center, said the center's nutritional message is consistent: Eat whole foods.

That's easier said than done when women worry about walking to stores alone at night, when the bus is infrequent and when fresh cherries cost more than a Hostess fruit pie. "Processed foods are basically what got us into this mess -- they're high in sugar, high in fats, high in sodium," she said. "People have the knowledge of what they're supposed to be doing, but they need support."

In Delridge, residents may be just a mile from the nearest grocery store. But the street map looks like a jigsaw puzzle, with roads dead-ending into creeks, a steel plant, a golf course, a boarded-up day care and jungled hillsides.

Because of high rates of diabetes, obesity and other food-related health issues, Delridge and White Center recently were chosen for a potential $3 million, 10-year grant King County is applying for to broadly reimagine how food, fitness and the built environment could support healthier lifestyles.

For residents such as Rathbun, it can be quicker to get a bus to Pike Place Market than to endure an hourlong trip up the hill to a West Seattle Safeway or PCC. Coming back, she lugs 30 pounds of groceries up 10 flights of stairs to her townhome.     Maggieh walks     Zoom    Paul Joseph Brown / P-I     Maggieh Rathbun, a single mother without a car, goes to the West Seattle PCC several times each week. The trip, on foot for a mile, takes at least two hours. Access to better food tops wish lists at community meetings in Rathbun's Delridge neighborhood.

"You have to shop for only a day or two, and sometimes if you have too many bags, people look at you like 'here comes the bag lady' ," said Rathbun, who has two 18-year-old daughters at home.

At community meetings -- whether they're green activists or low-income tenants -- the thing that most often tops the wish list is a grocery store or access to better food, said Derek Birnie, executive director of the Delridge Neighborhoods Development Association.

"Within 50 feet of my office, there are three places to buy a candy bar but no fresh food," he said.

His organization is interested in working with Seattle Public Schools to buy and redevelop a 14-acre temporary school site that could become a commercial center for Delridge.

But Tom Phillips, manager of the High Point housing redevelopment project just up the hill, tells a "sad tale" about efforts to attract a major grocer to a 4-acre parcel there.

Over the course of four years, the Seattle Housing Authority and a private developer worked hard to make that happen, he said, even securing federal tax credits that would have lowered the tenant's rent 30 percent.

By that time, QFC and Whole Foods announced plans to locate in the Alaska Junction. Other prospects said West Seattle would be "overgrocered."

That's why some residents favor working with existing community assets, using fallow land to grow food and convincing convenience store owners to carry more than Ring Pops and Hungry Man dinners.

That's been done from Hartford to Michigan to Los Angeles. Funding has been raised for infrastructure to stock produce, universities have donated market research and communities have used grass-roots advertising to drive traffic.

Bhim Gollen, owner of the Super24 Food Store on Delridge, which carries everything from chamomile tea to Colt 45, said customers ask for fresh food. But he would need space and equipment to stock more than the potatoes, onions and lemons he already offers.

In any neighborhood, it's amazing the difference a simple corner grocery with fresh food can make in people's lives, said Branden Born, a UW assistant professor of urban planning who worked with graduate students Andrew Bjorn and Brian Lee on the food-access study.

"It really is a quality-of-life livability thing," he said. "They drop the kid in the stroller and walk -- it's quick, it's convenient, comfortable and fun."

The Seattle food resolution sponsored by City Councilman Richard Conlin initially would require studies: whether land-use policies should be changed to prioritize food, how bicycle routes could offer better access, how food supplies would fare during an emergency.

Few concrete policies have been proposed, but ideas for cities to exert influence over food are multiplying.

Those could include offering incentives or tax breaks for green grocers, enforcing loading zones for food deliveries, permitting farm stands, altering bus routes and providing space for industrial community kitchens.

"If the city were to prioritize food, there's an endless set of opportunities where we work within existing processes to prioritize people's health and well-being over and above the people who can pay the most," said Erin MacDougall, who oversees the food and fitness initiative for Public Health -- Seattle & King County.

With grocery prices soaring, improving access to healthy food doesn't do any good if people can't afford to buy anything once they get to a store.

Dana Sowers works as a Starbucks barista at a West Seattle Safeway, but rarely shops there. With six children to feed, she hitches a ride or takes the bus to a cheaper grocery store in Burien.

Sylvia Kantor, a Washington State University extension educator who sits on the Seattle-King County Acting Food Policy Council, said the factors driving food prices are complicated. But cities can work in other areas, she said.

"I don't think we're going to get the price of food down, and farmers need to make what they need to make, so it's the cost of housing and the lack of livable wage jobs that really get to the poverty question," she said.

As executive director of Hartford Food System, Mark Winne spent 25 years organizing community food projects to benefit low-income residents.

He will discuss his book, "Closing the Food Gap: Resetting the Table in the Land of Plenty," at 7 p.m. May 13 at Third Place Books in Ravenna. RESOURCES For more information on the King County Food and Fitness Initiative, visit http://king.wsu.edu/foodandfarms/KCFFI.html.

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