Making Food Deserts Bloom

Tax dollars bring healthy foods to neighborhoods without supermarkets. But can it reduce obesity?

Muktar Abdow is terribly proud of the refrigerator and freezer at his African Mini Market on North Killingsworth Street. He shows them off with a smile and a wave of his hand that's appropriate for The Price Is Right.

The equipment at his convenience store allows him to stock fresh produce and halal meats—and, in turn, appeal to a wider array of neighborhood customers. 

But he didn't buy the appliances. Taxpayers did. 

Abdow's store is among 22 in a county-run program, the Healthy Retail Initiative, that subsidizes stores with grants of up to $4,500 to provide more than the typical quick-mart fare. 

County officials hope the program will change the way the stores do business—and encourage nearby residents to eat better. 

The stores are located largely in neighborhoods where residents don't have access to big grocery stores—and in areas where county officials believe obesity is a public health problem.

The program goes beyond equipment like refrigerators for produce and deep freezers for meat. County officials advise store owners which foods to stock and where to buy them wholesale, and give them red apple-shaped labels to identify healthy foods. 

"We never thought we'd get help the way they help us," Abdow says. "Money makes you change, and they gave us money."

But the county has no evidence the program is working. Nor has it come up with a way to measure how—if at all—these subsidies are changing the way people shop and eat.

The county is focusing on what the stores sell and stock, but not customers' buying habits. The county plans to first track stores' inventories—whether they're ordering more healthy products—and then survey storeowners and customers. Those studies are months away.

Sonia Manhas, manager of community wellness and prevention for the Multnomah County Health Department, says the county is trying to create demand for healthier foods by offering customers a wider variety of choices—the opposite of how sales tend to work. 

She acknowledges that giving cash grants to corner stores isn't going to fix a longstanding problem: unhealthy eating habits and swaths of the county where big grocery chains refuse to operate. 

“Is this something the county can be in the business of doing for a long period of time? Well, no,” Manhas says. 

View Groceries Receiving Help With Healthy Food in a full screen map

Vicki Ezell, vice chairwoman of the Portsmouth Neighborhood Association, whose neighborhood includes Village Market, one of the subsidized stores, says she would rather see the money funneled into a farmers market or medium-sized grocery store within walking distance.

"That $4,500 is going to go really fast. It would be better to spend it on something that's going to last," Ezell says. "It sounds like somebody had a good idea and didn't think it through all the way."

County Chairman Jeff Cogen says he's not worried the program lacks a way to measure its success.

"Hopefully, in five to 10 years down the line," Cogen says, "the spike in obesity and diabetes we've seen will have leveled off."

The county money comes from a $7.5 million federal grant from the Centers for Disease Control to get people to lose weight by eating better and exercising more. The money is split between the county and other local governments, nonprofits, schools and private organizations. 

During the first year of the three-year grant, schools in seven districts—Portland Public, David Douglas, Parkrose, Centennial, Gresham-Barlow, Reynolds and Riverdale—are getting $634,375 to "implement obesity prevention strategies."

Programs operated by the cities of Gresham and Portland and Multnomah County are sharing $438,333 from the grant on other initiatives—such as zoning changes to set aside space for urban farms, and public policies that encourage people to use bikes and public transit.

The Healthy Retail Initiative is among several ideas promoted by the CDC. It's similar to the Healthy Corner Stores Initiative in Philadelphia that works with about 1,000 small inner-city markets.

Manhas says the county is trying to combat health disparities across racial, ethnic and economic groups. She says Latinos, African-Americans and the working poor contract diseases related to obesity—including heart disease and diabetes—in disproportionately high numbers.

A 2009 Multnomah County study found African-Americans die at twice the rate of whites from diabetes-related conditions and illnesses.

Manhas says the Portland area's attention to local foods and farmers markets doesn't reach everyone. She says this program will help people who can't afford the high-end organic or local food that has become popular among more affluent Portlanders. 

"There's a strong local food movement here," Manhas says. "We're trying to bring in this other perspective. Otherwise, what you're going to have is a disparate movement. How does food, an issue that impacts everyone, become something not everyone connects to?"

At least 13 of the stores that have received county subsidies are in North Portland, and three are in Northeast—areas where the county has used U.S. census data to show that people have difficulty getting to large grocery stores.

Manhas says she and her colleagues started the program after talking to parents at César Chávez School in North Portland. They said they often take a bus to the WinCo Foods market on Northeast 102nd Avenue—a 12-mile ride—because prices are lower and the selection is better than that at their neighborhood stores.

“There’s a lot of conversation about ‘food deserts’ and what are we going to do about that?” Manhas says.  “We’re trying our best to be really grounded in people’s real experience and real lives.… We did see this as an opportunity.”

Rafael Moreno, who owns El Compadre market on North Lombard Street, says the $4,500 grant has helped him stock more grains, especially in bulk, and is helping pay for a walk-in freezer to store meats and vegetables for much longer than he can now.

At Village Market, the grocery store in the New Columbia housing project in the Portsmouth neighborhood, a $4,500 grant helped open the store in May.

"You don't have to go out of the community," says resident Annie Aotole. "And I'm liking the new bulk foods they have very much."

Abdow, who has owned his African Mini Market on North Killingsworth for about a year, says language is a barrier to eating healthy if you send immigrants to stores where employees don't speak their language.

“Tufah,” Abdow says, pointing to a shiny red apple. “That’s ‘apple’ in Somali.” He grins. “Moos,” he says, pointing to a banana. 

Here, African immigrants can ask him for what they want in Somali or Swahili, which they can't do at WinCo.

Abdow says he couldn't offer fresh produce until the county helped him buy the refrigerated produce case, which also holds pineapples, cantaloupe, ginger and potatoes. 

And the freezer allows him to stock two types of chickens (one popular in West Africa, the other a favorite in the Middle East and Somalia) and halal chicken burgers and hot dogs.

He says his customers love the new selection. 

“You know how you feel in a desert, when you feel thirst?” he says. “And somebody gives you water? It feels like that.” 

Willamette Week's journalism is funded, in part, by our readers. Your help supports local, independent journalism that informs, educates, and engages our community. Become a WW supporter.