Image: Food distribution
Mike Groll  /  AP
Veggie Mobile worker Paul Barrett, left, helps customer Christina Coughlin in Albany, N.Y., on May 9, 2008. The van delivers fresh, locally-grown produce sold for a fraction of what it costs at the small neighborhood grocery.
updated 7/6/2008 11:39:06 AM ET 2008-07-06T15:39:06

For years, Mel Williams rarely ate fruit and vegetables — unless it came out of a can.

Fresh produce was too expensive or too far away until the state-funded “Veggie Mobile” started bringing the fruits and vegetables to him at a lower price.

“I’m a diabetic and I have problems with my heart,” the 66-year-old said. “The canned stuff has so much sodium in it. So now with the fresh fruit, it’s less sugar and carbohydrates and stuff.”

Williams is one of millions of Americans living in a “food desert,” urban or rural areas unserved by a big grocery chain that can serve up fresh foods at lower costs. He’s in Troy, a former industrial city about 10 miles from New York’s capital.

With the rapidly climbing cost of food and fuel, states and nonprofit groups are finding ways to get healthy food to these underserved areas.

In New York, the health department gave $500,000 to the Veggie Mobile, operated by the Capital District Community Gardens and delivering fresh, locally grown produce to people in Albany, Troy and nearby Schenectady who otherwise might never buy a fresh apple or tomato.

“It makes it possible for families to include these foods in their diet because it’s about half the price of what it is in the market,” said Amy Klein, executive director of the nonprofit.

When compared to New York Supermarket — a small grocery in the poor Arbor Hill neighborhood of Albany — the Veggie Mobile offered dramatic savings, more selection and fresher options. Bananas sold for $0.99 a pound at the supermarket, but went for $0.59 a pound from the Veggie Mobile. Iceberg lettuce was $1 each at the mobile grocery, and $1.99 at the New York Supermarket. Cucumbers sold for $0.89 each at the neighborhood market, but were 3 for $1 from the Veggie Mobile.

The difference means that poor families cannot only afford and access fresh produce, but can buy more than if they relied on the neighborhood options.

Instead of going to a big chain grocery store each week, where volume sales and competition mean lower prices, families in urban food deserts and rural communities tend to rely on gas station convenience stores, or corner stores where milk, bread and other staples cost more.

“As more and more national chains have a greater share of the food market, it can impact areas that don’t have either the space or the demand for a full line grocery store,” said Ephraim Leibtag, an economist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “The majority of the country is predicated on driving somewhere (for groceries), so ’close to home’ may be defined differently if you don’t have a car.”

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Local food sold online
Many rural areas are using consumer supported agriculture, like Iowa’s Farm to Folk program, to tackle the problem. Customers within 30 miles of the Ames, Iowa-based organization can order 20 weeks’ worth of food off the Internet — either a weekly share of whatever local farmers produce, or an a la carte selection, coordinator Marilyn Andersen said.

Farm to Folk sells products from 10 farmers to about 130 consumers at prices from $95 for a small fruit share, to $430 for a share of whatever the farmers produce that would serve a family of four. Each week the customers pick up their food from a church.

Neighborhood stores in urban areas across the country have been closing as chains invest in building bigger, new stores in suburbs, a ’disinvestment’ forced by urban crime, high employee turnover and the lack of space for large stores. But some grocery stores are responding to the need and earning potential of food deserts.

St. Louis-based Schnuck Markets, Inc., announced plans earlier this year to open a two-story, urban market in a parking garage in the city’s downtown. It will be the downtown neighborhood’s only full-scale grocery store and pharmacy when it opens in 2009.

British grocery giant Tesco PLC has opened 61 Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market stores in California, Nevada and Arizona. The small grocery stores are found in upscale markets, but have also filled gaps in underserved areas — including a recently opened store in Compton, Calif., south of Los Angeles.

Incentives for stores to offer healthier options
Pennsylvania’s Fresh Food Financing Initiative was created in 2004 to commit millions in public funds to leverage additional public and private funds. The money is used to create loans for supermarket development across the state. It provides incentives for stores to open and gets more coolers into small corner stores so they can offer healthier options.

Image: Customer leaves Veggie Mobile
Mike Groll  /  AP
A customer leaves the Veggie Mobile after buying produce in Albany, N.Y., on May 9, 2008.
That effort was driven by The Food Trust, a nonprofit which has also helped New Orleans come up with a proposal for dealing with food deserts.

In Chicago, the city created a program to make it easier for grocery stores to do business, attracting new stores to long-underserved neighborhoods.

And in Connecticut, the nonprofit Hartford Food System has signed up 40 smaller retailers for its Healthy Food Retailer Initiative, which since 2006 has provided healthier options to customers in underserved areas. Smaller stores that agree to shift a portion of their shelf space from junk food to healthier options get promotional assistance as an incentive.

In rural communities, the problems can be different. The family store on Main Street has likely closed, and rural communities often don’t offer a financial incentive to support grocery stores. Big chains are reluctant to build here, where the customer base is too small to support a mega-store.

Gas prices rule out long drives to grocery store
While people living in these communities are used to driving long distances for groceries, rising gas costs and inflation make it difficult for some to pay for both transportation and food.

Whether families live on a farm in rural Iowa, or in a population dense inner-city, the need for healthy affordable food is the same. In many cases the solutions are being built around the communities they serve. There’s plenty of untapped demand in the communities that need the most help.

“People were skeptical and thought they (low-income families) weren’t going to come, and they’re not going to spend their money on fresh produce,” Klein said of the Veggie Mobile. “But they are, and they’re buying it in large quantities ... They’re not looking for a freebie, they’re appreciative that it’s there, that it’s available and it’s affordable.”

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