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January 21, 2009

Fruit of their efforts

City launches program to increase access to fresh produce, a trend food justice advocates fight to further

When Julie and Mike Kader bought the former Dollar General near the Sheppard Square housing complex in Smoketown three years ago, customers overwhelmingly made the same request: sell groceries.

With only one supermarket in the area, Smoketown residents had few options for buying food.

 “We heard the community quite loudly,” Julie says. “They said we need more than just dollar items. They wanted groceries, so we expanded and we brought in groceries.”

Now the couple is set to expand their grocery business even more by adding fresh fruits and vegetables, thanks to a nutrition grant awarded as part of the city’s new “Healthy in a Hurry” initiative, sponsored by the Center for Health Equity and the Louisville YMCA.

The city split the $20,000 grant between the Kaders’ store — now called Dollar Plus — and Shorty’s convenience store in the California neighborhood. Aimed at providing underserved neighborhoods known as “food deserts” because of a scarcity of fresh, healthy food, the grant will help pay for renovations at the two pilot stores, along with the purchase of refrigeration units, display racks, new signs and other improvements.

In many Louisville neighborhoods, the corner store is the only viable option for buying groceries, although such establishments offer little if any fresh food. In 2007, a prominent food researcher found that east downtown and west Louisville residents must travel two to five times farther to reach a full-service grocer than to reach the nearest convenience store or fast-food restaurant.

“With the ‘Healthy in a Hurry’ project we expect there to be an influx of thousands of dollars of fresh foods in those communities,” says SteVon Edwards, an organizer with the Community Farm Alliance. According to a 2005 study by the farm alliance, 50 percent of east downtown residents in the Smoketown and Shelby Park neighborhoods don’t have vehicles, and nearly one-third of west Louisville residents are without cars, making it difficult to access supermarkets.

Now the Community Farm Alliance is asking the Metro Council to fund a similar initiative, expanding the “Healthy in a Hurry” concept to at least 10 corner stores. In addition, the alliance has proposed offering the corner stores a 20 percent rebate if they purchase Kentucky produce. This expanded program would cost an estimated $100,000 over three years, providing participating stores with a $1,500 incentive in exchange for dedicating 5 percent of shelf space to Kentucky produce.

The farm alliance also has drafted a “buy local” food ordinance that would require Metro agencies to buy Kentucky-grown agricultural products, given they meet quality standards and do not exceed the cost of food products from outside the state by more than 10 percent.

“This is another avenue to getting fresh food into west Louisville and east downtown,” Edwards says. “I don’t see why there would be any opposition to getting a program like this passed.”

The farm alliance has contacted all 26 council members to garner support for both proposals, and last week alliance organizers met with Council President David Tandy, D-4, to discuss the details.

“The initial meeting was to learn what they’re proposing and to see if it needed to be done by ordinance or resolution,” says Tandy, adding that the meeting went well.

At this point, however, Tandy has not decided whether he will support the proposed measures, saying he and fellow council members need more time for review. Regardless, he says addressing Louisville’s food deserts will be on the council’s agenda in some capacity this year.

“I think it’s very important that people throughout Jefferson County have access to fresh fruits and vegetables and other produce,” Tandy says. “There’s no [question] that the highest rates of cancer, diabetes and high blood pressure are found in your poorer parts of Jefferson County.”

Dr. Adewale Troutman, director of the city’s Health and Wellness Department, is urging the Metro Council to address the issue of providing healthy foods in impoverished communities. Because Tandy’s district includes the two neighborhoods where the “Healthy in a Hurry” pilot stores were launched, the council president could bring significant attention to the city’s food deserts.

“The council has not only access to the partnerships and community base, but they have resources and a say in the budget,” Troutman says. “With Councilman Tandy being the president, he has a tremendous bully pulpit to push the issue and to help us find resources to pay for programs like this.”

In an effort to fill the city’s $20 million budget shortfall, the mayor recently made a series of cuts that included slashing health department spending by 9 percent. According to Troutman, the economic crunch has affected the delivery of certain services and left personnel positions vacant. For now, he says the department is relying on money from national nutrition grants to further its health agenda.

Last month, the health department received a $400,000 grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to reduce childhood obesity. In partnership with the Mayor’s Healthy Hometown Movement, the Transit Authority of River City and the YMCA, the health department will use the grant to increase opportunities for physical activity and access to healthy, affordable foods for children and families in poorer neighborhoods.

Meanwhile, other urban models are mushrooming in the Smoketown neighborhood, Troutman says. For example, the YMCA plans to teach nutrition classes at several schools in that neighborhood, and a private developer is planning for a year-round downtown farmers market.

“If you don’t have the access and haven’t addressed the structure of food, you can talk until you’re blue in the face about eating healthier,” Troutman says. “This is a way to bring food justice to a local community, [enabling people] to walk across the street or down the block to access healthy food. This is a significant step in the right direction.”