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Local food desert to get fresh produce

The USDA recently identified South Oak Park as a “food desert” – a produce-deficient area – but a local convenience store and community development nonprofit have joined forces in an attempt to address the problem.

Starting on May 26, Sam’s Market, at 23rd Avenue and 42nd Street in Oak Park, will offer fresh fruits and vegetables, sourced primarily from local small and midsize growers. The shop will also sport signs inside and outside that promote eating well and staying active, as well as “shelf talkers” – small signs identifying the healthiest option on a shelf of similar products.

The Alchemist Community Development Corporation approached store owner Parminder Grewal early this year. According to Alchemist Executive Director Davida Douglas, the store was an ideal fit for their Healthy Corner Store Makeover project.

“Parminder’s store is larger than most convenience stores, which allows us more opportunities to add healthy items to the existing stock,” Douglas said. “He also regularly has more than one person staffing the store at a time, which is helpful in order to be able to do the regular maintenance and merchandising of perishable fresh produce.”

Coolers like this, found at Sam’s, are ideal for storing fresh produce

Grewal was not surprised to hear that his shop’s neighborhood was a food desert, saying the lack of nearby convenient options makes it difficult to maintain a healthy diet.

“There are no markets in this neighborhood,” Grewal said. ”There is one liquor store and one convenience store. There is no food or anything available in this area – either they have to go to Fruitridge or Martin Luther King, which is more than one mile away.”

Douglas speculated that, based on observation, focus groups and surveys, most residents make, on average, monthly trips to out-of-the-way full service grocery stores and use nearby convenience stores to fill in the gaps of what runs out or is forgotten in that monthly trip.

“There tends to be a higher reliance on cheap, processed foods and boxed meals,” she said.

Douglas said that, over time, Grewal’s selection would grow to include more nutritious versions of packaged foods he already carries, including products with whole grains, frozen produce, and snacks lower in sodium and free of trans-fats.

“We also provided energy-saving night time covers for the open front cooler in order to conserve electricity, and ultimately reduce the store’s electricity bill,” she added.

This year, Sam’s Market will also host the Alchemist’s Urban Farm Stand every Sunday from noon to 3 p.m. through September. The stands offer locally-grown fresh produce at affordable prices and accept CalFresh food stamps to ensure that low-income families don’t miss out.

According to “Hunger Hits Home,” a 2012 study on regional food access, Sacramento County is home to roughly 220,000 food-insecure residents, most of whom reside in low-income neighborhoods such as South Oak Park.

Grewal is hopeful that his store’s makeover will bring residents one step closer to eating well on a regular basis.

“I wanted to get fresh and healthy food available in the neighborhood,” he said. “They can go to the farmers’ market, but here it will be available every day.”

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Allison Joy

  • But heaven forbid a big box supermarket want to locate a store there!

    • Big Box supermarket wouldn’t build there if they could.

  • Davi Rodrigues

    Storing fresh produce in a refer display case made in 1962, and designed for packaged deli foods is ideal? That’s rhetorical of course. My prediction is a complete failure of this in short order. Those screens may help on his utility costs a bit, but the fresh foods will deteriorate rapidly in those old cases. Newer technology makes way for better preservation of fresh foods. If anything would insure success of this effort, it would be to replace those refer cases. His spoilage is going to kill him financially.

    • Allison Joy

      I suppose they would be ideal compared to what most convenience stores have at their disposal (limited space for photo captions). Another smaller cooler has been added for single serving items like whole fruits. A produce-specific shelving fixture was also added to the front open cooler.

    • Shouldn’t it be refurb?

    • Mr. Rodrigues: I understand that you make a living selling refrigeration units and grocery fixtures, and therefore have a unique perspective and insight into the grocery and convenience store business.
      Because the store owner already had the existing refrigerator case that was not being fully utilized, and he did not have any plans to dispose of the unit, we decided that rather than add even more refrigeration units and additional electricity load, we would make use of the existing unit. (We did not have sufficient funds to replace the entire 12 foot cooler with a newer model – as these run into the many thousands of dollars even for used). We are aware of the many challenges of stocking and maintaining fresh produce and sustaining adequate product sell through. We will be working with the store staff over the course of the next year and a half to ensure that they have the knowledge and assistance they need to offer fresh produce, as it is very different than stocking and selling shelf stable and packaged foods. We will work with them to address challenges that may come up, and provide solutions to issues as they arise. Additionally, we will be doing ongoing outreach to promote the fresh produce to the surrounding neighborhood, including conducting multiple sampling and cooking demonstrations at the store site in order to help create the demand to support produce sales at the market. We are upfront with the store management regarding the level of sales and spoilage that they can expect. They do not expect to “get rich” off of produce sales. They understand that its main feature -in a business sense- is to draw new customers to the store that will also purchase other product. They also genuinely are excited to be able to provide a service to the community and improve the health of those that live in the neighborhood. – Davida Douglas, Executive Director, Alchemist CDC

  • This is a great idea! There are no resources in that neighborhood and it’s great to see small businesses and organizations working together to make improvements.
    And here’s an idea – rather than saying there’s no way this could work, how about we give the businesses (and the people in the neighborhoods) the chance to try it before we say it’s a bad idea and going to fail? That’s the only way real change can happen.
    Thank you, Allison for a great article!

  • Why is it called a food desert in South Oak Park, but not North Land Park? Between the Mercado Loco on Sutterville/Franklin, the Food Source on Broadway/Stockton and the Food Co on Fruitridge/ Stockton there is not a single home in Oak Park that is more than a mile from a major grocery store.

    • Allison Joy

      Peep: South Oak Park is not the only designated “food desert” in the city – you can check the USDA’s interactive map to learn more (http://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/food-access-research-atlas/go-to-the-atlas.aspx#.UZ6EfSv72K-) or the “Hunger Hits Home” study linked in the article.

    • The really interesting thing is that the USDA does not list South Oak Park as a food desert at all in the original food access research measurement (original food desert measure) quoted above. Upper Land Park, and Fruitridge Terrace do fall into this category. It is only when you reduce the requirement to 0.5 miles that a large portion of Sacramento begins to fall into this revised category (North Oak Park, Tahoe Park, Elmhurst) but even then it doesn’t include most of South Oak Park? So I guess I’m still a bit perplexed?

    • Patrick J.

      It’s not showing because it’s filtering to the city limits and South Oak Park is not in the city limits.

  • Hi Peep. I believe much of the difference as to why South Oak Park would be considered a food desert and the other areas not has to do with the average resident’s ability to access these grocery outlets in terms of vehicle transportation. Income is typically a factor in distinguishing food deserts as well.

  • Jessica Guglielmino

    I live down the street from this market, and welcome access to fresh fruits and veggies within walking distance. I will buy there, and I’m certain other local families will, too.

    • That’s great to hear! We hope you’ll also come out to the kick-off event this Sunday, May 26th from 12-3pm. We’ll have free samples, fun activities and produce preparation tips.
      -Davida Douglas, Executive Director, Alchemist CDC

  • Patrick J., it is actually not filitered to the city limits. The map includes multiple areas within Sacramento County. Additionally, the majority of South Oak Park (and the portion that that does not meet even the more stringent 1/2 mile criteria) is within the City of Sacramento.

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