- PHOTO BY MAX SCHULTE
- The city of Rochester will put $5 million in COVID relief funds into a loan and grant program aimed at bringing healthy food to underserved communities.
Walk into any corner store in any given neighborhood of the city and you’ll likely find the same assortment of fare — potato chips, sugary sodas, freeze-dried noodles, cans of Chef Boyardee, and plenty of beer and cigarettes.
A new city plan aims to change that.
The Rochester City Council voted in October to funnel $5 million in federal COVID relief dollars into a pot accessible to shop owners and entrepreneurs with fresh ideas on how to get good quality food into the mouths of Rochester residents.
The possibilities of the so-called “Healthy Food Loan and Grant Program” are wide. It could, for example, help a corner bodega stock fresh fish, or give an app designer the start-up cash to launch a local grocery delivery service.
“We wouldn’t expect every corner store to want to be a part of this,” said Dana Miller, commissioner of the city’s Department of Neighborhood and Business Development. “But, we would expect that some of the corner stores that are perhaps looking at this more broadly, and saying, ‘You know, there’s money in these items we’re selling now, but we really do feel a need to try and provide more service to the community.’”
For many neighborhoods, particularly those of low-income that have been largely abandoned by the region’s chain supermarkets, corner stores are a key source of food. They’re easily accessible by foot and typically stocked with low-preparation meals and snacks. But you’d be hard-pressed to find decent produce or quality meat at most of these shops.
Miller acknowledged that it is cost effective for corner stores to peddle pre-packaged foods, beer, and cigarettes. The displays are usually free from the supplier and the products seldom go bad.
Likewise, a growing body of research suggests that dietary patterns in neighborhoods bereft of healthy food options are not necessarily linked to what’s on the corner store shelf. For example, a 2014 study, supported by the National Institutes of Health, that focused on two low-income, predominantly Black neighborhoods in Pittsburgh, found that access to a full-service supermarket may not be as large of a factor in dietary choices as food marketing.
“(T)hat marketing may be critically important to understanding the food environment, perhaps more so than access, may be particularly true for residents of food deserts, who are largely low-income individuals,” the study reads.
The goal of the Food Access Loan and Grant Program is to not just introduce quality food to underserved neighborhoods, but to do so in a way that people will actually want to buy it.
The program will be overseen by Rosa Luciano,the chair of the city’s Food Policy Council, a new city-created function tasked with addressing the city’s food access issues.
“I think one of the important things is us not defining what healthy food is, but really listening to our neighbors,” Luciano said. “Every neighborhood has different needs.”
Luciano emphasized the importance of tailoring efforts to specific neighborhoods.
For instance, in a neighborhood like Edgerton, where a large number of Nepali refugees have settled, that might look like making sure corner stores carry fenugreek, a hard-to-find spice that is a staple of Nepalese cuisine.
“It’s not just about food, it’s about listening to those voices,” Luciano said.
The program is aiming for a three-pronged approach to healthy food access — investing in existing businesses, attracting new healthy food businesses to underserved areas, and “alternative models” for food distribution.
City Councilmember Mitch Gruber is the chief policy officer at Foodlink, putting him at the intersection of city policy and the region’s food access efforts. He was largely responsible for drafting the loan and grant legislation.
Gruber sees opportunity in what he calls the “alternative food retail models” portion of the legislation. He sees potential in things like “click and collect” programs, which allow customers to order food online and pick them up at a store, subsidized farm sharing programs, and mobile markets, like Foodlink’s curbside market.
Foodlink currently has no role in the loan and grant program.
- PHOTO BY MAX SCULTE
- Officials see alternative methods for bringing good food to communities as key to success. The Rochester Public Market is one potentially underused resource.
“Most cities, at the end of the day, have tried to focus on incentivizing big boxes to come,” Gruber said. “Look at Constantino’s, it didn’t work.”
The Ohio-based grocer Constantino’s opened to great fanfare in 2015 in College Town, the shopping district surrounding the University of Rochester. Backed by $750,000 in federal grants, the store lasted less than a year.
There are numerous examples of grocery stores across the country that entered low-income marketplaces with the assistance of government subsidies or employing alternative models and failing. In the South Side of Chicago, a section of the city notorious for its pockets of crime, a Whole Foods bolstered by $10.7 million in municipal grants in 2014 shuttered earlier this year.
In 2018, the Salvation Army opened its first grocery store in Baltimore. Dubbed DMG Foods, short for Doing the Most Good, the grocery store was heralded as a model for non-profit grocery stores. It lasted less than three years.
- PHOTO BY MAX SCHULTE
- The FoodLink Curbside Market makes deliveries of fresh produce to underserved communities.
Gruber sees opportunity not in pushing for more traditional, or non-profit grocery stores, but rather by thinking outside of the box. He points to services like DoorDash, Instacart, or the meal delivery service Blue Apron as having potential. The hurdle is making them accessible to needy residents.
“One of the ways we actually see innovation in food access is by creating funds for entrepreneurial investment,” Gruber said. “...We have a lot of entrepreneurs in this city that, given the time and space, can do something different.”
Gino Fanelli is a CITY staff writer. He can be reached at (585) 775-9692 or [email protected].