Can America's Urban Food Deserts Bloom?

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A woman shops for produce in a Chicago supermarket

Inside the supermarket, uniformed workers are stacking pineapples into neat rows across from bundles of fresh mustard greens, tamarind pods and nopalitos — sliced cactus ears common in Mexican dishes. In much of the country, Farmers Best Market would not be an extraordinary sight. But here on 47th Street, a gritty stretch of Chicago's South Side flush with Golden Arches and purveyors of Colt 45 Malt Liquor, the store is an oasis. It's also raising an intriguing proposition: Can an inner-city supermarket profitably specialize in fresh produce and meats — and, ultimately, be a model solution to urban America's health crisis?

For years, major supermarket chains have been criticized for abandoning densely populated, largely black and Latino communities in cities like Detroit, Los Angeles, Memphis and Newark, N.J. — contributing to what many experts call food deserts. Many of these communities are, quite literally, starving for broader and healthier food options beyond the seemingly ubiquitous fast-food chains and corner stores selling barely a handful of fruits and vegetables — at relatively high prices. (Watch TIME's video "Urban Deserts: Fresh Food-Free.")

Simply put, people eat what is convenient and affordable — and if it's fat-heavy fast food, that's what they'll chow down on. The prevalence of obesity among American youth overall increased to 16.3% in 2006, from 5% in 1980, but some 28% of non-Hispanic black females between ages 12 and 19 are obese, as are about 20% of Mexican-American females (the statistic for non-Hispanic white females in the same age group is 14.5%). In congressional testimony earlier this year, a top official from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identified food deserts as a cause of these grim statistics.

Experts have declared roughly half of Detroit (pop. 916,000) a food desert and estimate that nearly 633,000 of Chicago's 3 million residents live in neighborhoods either lacking or far away from conventional supermarkets like Jewel, Pathmark and Winn-Dixie. The paucity of affordable, healthy food options in urban communities is ironic in a country with an abundance of food. "Everyone deserves to eat," says Mari Gallagher, president of the National Center for Public Research, a Chicago group that studies urban issues. The crisis, she adds, "really is a matter of life and death." (See pictures of what the world eats.)

Karriem Beyah, 47, is out to change all that with Farmers Best Market. He grew up on Chicago's South Side and worked in his godfather's neighborhood grocery store. So it isn't surprising that he embarked on a career chopping raw meat, loading food trucks and, eventually, managing a dairy distributor's operations. As he built his personal savings and a base of industry contacts, he noticed the growth of stores like Trader Joe's and Whole Foods in Chicago and its suburbs. "This should be on the South Side," he recalls thinking. But, he says, when he approached industry colleagues with the idea of opening such a store, they reacted by saying, "Who wants to go over there, in that negative element?"

Nevertheless, about four years ago, he began scoping out properties, just as research began to emerge identifying vast sections of Chicago — particularly its black neighborhoods — as a food desert. But the initial idea of opening a store in a black neighborhood was dashed. "I'd have to have a higher class of African Americans, that recognize the value of fruits and vegetables," he recalls thinking. Real estate was too expensive in neighborhoods like Bronzeville and Hyde Park, which boast high concentrations of black professionals. At the same time, he observed that many Latinos tend to have large families and buy fresh fruits and vegetables more frequently than blacks and the general population. So he settled on a vast, 35,000-sq.-ft. building that had been abandoned by a national supermarket chain about 15 years ago. It's in a largely Mexican-American neighborhood known as Back of the Yards. Just to the east lie Bronzeville and Hyde Park. (See 10 things to do in Chicago.)

The store, which opened last July, is airy and well lit. The produce section is stocked with fresh mustard greens, popular among blacks with roots in the Deep South. There's also elephant-ear-size fried pork skins, a Mexican-American favorite. The neighborhood has few bakeries, so Farmers Best sells cakes and loaves of bread. Produce, meat and dairy products account for roughly 62% of Farmers Best's sales. Slowly, it is attracting customers like Vera Johnson, a restaurant cashier who lives nearby.

One recent afternoon, Johnson, a 29-year-old African American, led her two daughters through the produce section. She tossed a pineapple and bags of apples into the shopping cart. "See, these are all real fresh," she says, pointing to a bag of blueberries. "You put these on little short cakes, with whipped cream," she continues, explaining the night's dessert, "and they love it." Johnson is now a Farmers Best regular and eschews nearby grocers that, she says, are often overcrowded and dirty and where "the oranges have brown spots."

Experts across the country are exploring a range of potential solutions to the urban health crisis, including creating neighborhood gardens and courting chains like Aldi, Family Dollar and even Wal-Mart to fill the void created by food deserts. But the supermarket industry suffers from especially tight profit margins and is thus particularly risk-averse, so supermarkets' entry into low-income neighborhoods has been slow. Furthermore, many low-end chains are hardly bastions of fresh, healthy produce and meat. (Read a story about Aldi, a grocer for the recession.)

So far, in 10 months of operation, Farmers Best has failed to turn a profit. Beyah attributes that partly to slowed consumer spending amid the recession, as well as a need to grow awareness about his venture. He is running ads on black radio stations, hoping to lure affluent blacks, who are likely to shop more frequently and not just at the top of the month, which is when customers who rely on government assistance to buy food receive their aid. Meanwhile, he regularly invites local students into the store. "We're trying to teach the children how to eat properly," he says. Despite such tactics, Beyah regards himself as a pure businessman, not an activist. He's also an optimist — and hopes to open at least five stores in the coming years. "I will survive," he declares.

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