Pushing Vegetables, Fruits on the Corner

Secrets of Nature: One Piece in Solving the Food Desert Puzzle

Coy Dunston, 62, said many stores and fast-food restaurants in Southeast Washington do not provide residents with the nutrients they need.

“They are slowly killing them,” Dunston said.

Dunston’s store, Secrets of Nature, and others like his are oases in what many researchers are calling food deserts or places where residents have limited access to full-service grocery stores that provide healthy foods.

Located at 3923 South Capitol St., S.W., Secrets of Nature sits in Ward 8, a ward which has historically been a food desert. For 30 years, Dunston has been educating residents in Ward 8 on healthier food options. His health food store and restaurant is stocked with vitamins, minerals, herbs and fresh produce.

“I got started when my mother was diagnosed with cancer,” Dunston, a former engineer, said. ” After three months of treatment, they gave up on her. I want to get people before the diseases and the doctors do.”

Hanging outside of Secrets of Nature, is a sign that reads, “Fresh! Fruits and vegetables are here. … This store is a member of the D.C. Corner Store Program.”

In 2007, D.C. Hunger Solutions launched the Healthy Corner Store Program in Wards 7 and 8. The goal of the initiative is to improve the healthy food choices that small community corner or grocery stores like Secrets of Nature offer.

Alexander Ashbrook led the D.C. Hunger Solutions efforts along with Food Research & Action Center (FRAC).

“Not having access to healthy foods is unacceptable,” Ashbrook said. “It’s part of the reason for obesity and other diseases that run rampant in communities that do not have access to healthy foods.”

Ashbrook sees small grocery stores like Dunston’s as part of the solution to the lack of healthy food options. During the summer and fall, D.C. Hunger Solutions provided Dunston with fresh fruits and vegetables. In return he put up signs and displayed the fruit in the front of his store to encourage consumers to buy the produce.

“I think that it works,” Dunston said. “I know that people want to healthy, but they don’t have many options; so when they are given to them, they take advantage of them.”

Creating Healthier Corner Stores

A 2008 study conducted by Social Impact Inc., indicated that Washington’s most underserved ward is Ward 8. In 2007, after almost a decade without a major supermarket chain, a Giant opened in the ward, bringing some relief to residents. Still, many residents are forced to travel outside the city to stores in Maryland to shop at full-service grocers.

For Congress Heights resident Gail Sanders, 56, taking a trip to Giant is done only on special occasions. It is much easier for her to pick up items like milk, soup and bread from nearby at K & H Grocery, which is also part of the corner store program.

“I’ve been living in Ward 8 my entire life,” Sanders said. “There just really aren’t many options for me. I go to Giant’s when I can get a ride or sometimes I might catch a cab but I can’t always do that. I just can’t afford to.”

Despite not having a major grocery chain available to them, whether it is because of affordability or accessibility, stores like Secrets of Natures have always been readily available to residents.

“Corner stores are vital to communities; we are the first line of defense,” Dunston said.

According to the full report released by D.C. Hunger Solutions, 25 small stores in Wards 7 and 8 are located in food deserts.

In order to get stores on board, D.C. Hunger Solutions surveyed stores for what type of fruits, vegetables, snacks and beverages they offered to customers. They also gave them training on how to get residents to buy the produce. According to the report, they found that the majority of the refrigeration space was designated for cold beverages (63 percent) and frozen foods (20 percent). They also found that sunflower seeds are the healthiest snack option that is available at 85 percent of the stores surveyed.

When D.C. Hunger Solutions approached him, Dunston said he was excited to see the fruits of the projects labor.

“It’s about time that we start taking things into our own hands,” Dunston said.

Twelve stores are participating in the corner store program. In addition to stocking sweets and chips, corner stores including Secrets of Nature, Martin Luther King
Grocery and Liff’s Market are selling tomatoes, green peppers, peaches, watermelon, cantaloupe, apples, potatoes and onions.

What D.C. Hunger Solutions is doing with corner stores is happening all over the country. New York has its Healthy Bodega initiative; Lansing, Mich., has its Corner Store Produce Project, and Cleveland has the Cleveland Corner Store initiative.

“For years it has been believed that corner stores are a part of the problem and not the solution,” said Kai Siendenburg, lead coordinator of the national Healthy Corner Stores Network. “It’s a relatively new revelation that they are actually a part of the solution.”

Siendenburg said that the most difficult part of making corner stores effective is picking the right stores to help move the initiative forward.

“The stores that are chosen have to be put in communities where there is already an unmet demand,” Siendenburg said. ” It is a myth that people who are poor do not want to eat healthy; they do. They just don’t have the resources and this is where corner stores can step in to help.”

Urban Gardens and the Food Desert Oasis Act

Although Sienderburg sees corner stores becoming even more vital to healthy communities in the near and long-term future, she says they are only one part of the solution.

“Food deserts are not natural occurrences; they’re man made,” Sienderburg said. “This means that the it’s up to the government to create policies that bring grocery stores to communities in need and to make grocery stores more accessible by creating more effective transportation. It also means that it is up to communities to speak up and express their needs.”

In addition to corner stores, other initiatives are being taken to bring healthy foods to residents in Washington and other cities.

In June, Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., pushed the 2009 Food Desert Oasis Act. The legislation acknowledges 20 major cities as food desert zones, including the District of Columbia, New Orleans, Philadelphia, New York and Houston.

The bill, which is currently waiting to be reviewed, states that the cities would be treated like enterprise zones. The zones would entice businesses that get at least 25 percent of their gross sales from fresh fruits and vegetables to receive tax incentives for opening supermarkets in the cities.

Two new developments in Washington this week include the opening of a farmers’ market in the courtyard of Howard University Hospital to serve residents in Ward 1 and D.C. Council’s passage of the Healthy Schools Act to improve nutrition and fitness programs at public and charter schools.

In Oakland, Calif, Nathan McClintock, a Ph.D. candidate for geography at the University of California in Berkeley has his own vision of undeveloped land being coming sources of food for residents.

“Urban gardens are the way to bridge the gap between food producers and the people who do not have access to the foods they need,” McClintock said.

McClintock said that there is plenty of land in Oakland. “It’s happening right now. We are getting their hands on land and are beginning to create plans to help feed communities who do not have access to healthy foods.”

Eboni Farmer is a correspondent for the Howard University News Service.