When Samantha Pounder and Hannah Choi imagine the shelves of a corner store, they see fresh aloe and kale instead of the usual sugary, shrink-wrapped confections and salty snacks.
It’s a vision that will soon become a reality when the pair open Muki’s Market in Washington DC, one of the newest additions to a growing movement to supply big city food deserts with healthy corner stores.
“The reality is there’s a need for more fresh food options,” says Pounder, food access director of Arcadia, a local non-profit. “When there are no grocery stores within walking distance or even a reasonable driving distance that becomes a problem.”
In Boston, Philadelphia, Indianapolis, San Jose, California, and Newark, New Jersey, a movement of entrepreneurs are opening similar shops to combat a practice known as “retail redlining”, when deliberate policies implemented over time create food deserts in predominantly Black and low-income neighborhoods.
A sign points to Arcadia Farms’ mobile farmer’s market in Washington DC.
A sign points to Arcadia Farms’ mobile farmer’s market in Washington DC. Photograph: Hector Emanuel/The Guardian
Brian Lang, director of the National Campaign for Healthy Food Access at the Food Trust, said: “By failing to aggressively combat the circumstances that led to the shortage of retail, food companies and public sector developing agencies have, in essence, redlined Philadelphia’s low income communities.”
It’s a similar situation in other US cities. The US Department of Agriculture provides $3m to $5m annually to a Healthy Food Financing Program, but Lang said it is not enough. He thinks more money is needed to support programs such as the Food Trust’s Healthy Corner Store Initiative, which gives technical and financial support to healthy corner stores.
A model of this movement can be found at the corner of 62nd and Market St in West Philadelphia, where Arnett Woodall, who goes by “Unc”, has been trying to uplift his neighborhood through food for more than a decade.
Woodall says there are plenty of “fringe” food stores and delis in the area, but warns that items such as hoagies are deadly. “You can get a hoagie on any corner in West Philly, but the bread turns into sugar and causes diabetes, the cheese gives you high cholesterol and the iceberg lettuce is basically water,” says Woodall, adding that the processed meat is a danger too. “You have to educate people about what healthy food is and what it looks like.”
Two young boys eat during a free breakfast for children program sponsored by the Black Panther Party in 1969.
Two young boys eat during a free breakfast for children program sponsored by the Black Panther Party in 1969. Photograph: Bev Grant/Getty Images
Woodall’s free food program is inspired by the Black Panther’s Free Breakfast for School Children Program in the late 1960s and the early 1970s, and he uses his store to teach business skills to the youth he employs. West Phillie Produce was the only grocer open in the area during the racial uprisings that took over the streets of Philadelphia in June 2020. Customers walked more than two miles to purchase food from the small corner store that has become a beacon of hope for the neighborhood.
“People come in here and don’t know how to engage the community. Growing up, our corner store owners were Black and they employed people from the community,” Woodall says. “Now they are from outside the community and that matters.”
‘Strengthen communities through food’
Many other cities are following Woodall’s playbook, including DC, where Pounder and Choi are setting up shop.
Washington DC recently launched a $3m initiative to bring “new food and retailers” to the wards 4, 7 and 8 in the city. Pounder and Choi received a $100,000 grant from the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development (DMPED) as part of the Neighborhood Prosperity Fund. The money is being used to complete construction on a building owned by Choi’s mother that was once a Black owned seafood market in the Fort Dupont neighborhood.