Food for Thought is a monthly series that examines the progress of the plans to confront economic factors and create a hunger-free Oregon. 

At the intersection of SE 162nd and Division you will find a former Safeway supermarket that has sat shuttered and empty since closing its doors in March 2011. At one time, the full-service grocery served as an anchor for the Division Crossing shopping center in Portland’s Centennial neighborhood. Along with the closing of an Albertsons forty blocks away in the Mill Park neighborhood this past winter, these stores’ closings further reduce the options for East Portland residents to do their grocery shopping in an area burdened with food access issues.

The technical definition of the term of a “food desert” is an “area of exclusion where people experience physical and economic barriers to accessing healthy food.” There are arguments that Portland lacks any “true” food deserts, however, the Portland Development Commission (PDC) recently released a report on grocery store distance related to population density and income. This report shows that certain parts of the city struggle with inequities regarding food access, with the expected problem areas found in East, North, and deep SE Portland.

Mayor Adams’ Grocery Store Initiative

The former Safeway grocery store at SE 162nd Avenue and Division Street.
The former Safeway grocery store at SE 162nd Avenue and Division Street.

In his 2011 State of the City address, Mayor Sam Adams acknowledged these challenges, pointing out that “approximately 40 percent of Portland residents live at least a mile away from a grocery store.” In the same speech, Mayor Adams tied this geographic barrier to the concept of neighborhood livability and announced the Grocery Store Initiative to “explore ways to make grocery stores financially feasible in under-served areas.”

For the past year, PDC has been tasked with implementing the Grocery Store Initiative. “We did an initial request for information,” explains John Jackley, PDC’s Neighborhood Division Manager. “This resulted in a dozen or so responses from large grocery retailers, as well as from some folks who haven’t even started yet.” One can’t help but wonder if “large grocery retailers” is a code word for Walmart, which has a history of trying to expand further into the Portland market, while studies show that poverty levels increase in areas where Walmart opens stores. “I am aware of their [Walmart's] interest, but they just provided a general submission,” Jackley says. “Besides, that is not our priority. Our priority is community-based solutions to these problems.”

Misplaced Optimism?

Food Front Cooperative Grocery in Northwest District
Food Front Cooperative Grocery in Northwest District

Certainly, it is encouraging to hear PDC optimistic about the ability to address the lack of available healthy food in certain parts of the city. At the same time, considering that large grocery retailers Safeway and Albertsons weren’t able to keep afloat in these same areas, is the reliance on community solutions perhaps misplaced?

"We realize that there’s not going to be any quick fixes,” Jackley says. “If there were, there would be no need for this initiative. Each store has its own model, and the difference between an unsuccessful Safeway and a successful store might be the use of a different model: co-op, pop-up shops, etc. Again, you’re not going to find any guarantees. But there is sustained commitment from the city and the leadership of the steering committee is community-wide, so I am confident we will help find the solutions that work best for each community.”

In his research on food deserts in Oakland, Portland State University professor Nathan McClintock provides a historical explanation of how the rise of large-scale grocery retailers also resulted in a lack of food options in the country’s inner-city neighborhoods. At one point in our nation’s history, the corner market was ubiquitous, offering the ability to purchase fresh food for dinner on the way home from work. But the economics of grocery retail in the latter half of the 20th century resulted in chain supermarkets driving smaller grocers out of business while pursuing the wealthier customers who had moved out to the suburbs.

As supermarkets controlled nearly three-quarters of the grocery market, small grocers simply could not compete and would often sell or merge with competing chains. In this manner, Safeway closed over 600 less-competitive, inner-city stores from 1978 to 1984, resulting in the boarded-up hull of a former grocery store being a familiar symbol of the American post-industrial city. Considering this history, it would be ironic if a renaissance of new corner markets were to occur, filling the food access gaps caused by the closing of supermarkets in low-income urban areas. At the same time, how can steps be taken to ensure quality of content in any new store, avoiding an influx of candy bars on every corner, all in the name of combating “food deserts?”

Multnomah County’s Healthy Retail Initiative

African Mini Market in Humbolt received a Healthy Retail Initiative grant.
African Mini Market in Humbolt received a Healthy Retail Initiative grant.

The purpose of Multnomah County’s Healthy Retail Initiative is to ensure that increased food options also expand access to healthy food. A project originally funded by the Communities Putting Prevention to Work—a $7 million grant for public health projects funded as part of President Obama’s stimulus package—the origins of the Healthy Retail Initiative are found with the county’s HEAL and ACHIEVE coalitions, groups that work to improve the public health of Latino and African-American communities. The Healthy Retail Initiative provides small grants for stores to make investments towards increased freezer and shelf space for healthy products, as well as technical assistance with marketing, produce handling, and developing a business plan.

“It is exciting that there are multiple initiatives that are getting different communities to assist with expanding food access,” says Rachael Banks, a program supervisor for the county’s public wellness efforts. “Right now, we are currently working with existing stores, with 23 store owners [now] able to increase food options that were being requested by their customers.” Funding from a grant provided by Kaiser Permanante will allow an expansion of the initiative, either in its scope or its geographic reach. “Currently our efforts are focused in North, NE and deep SE Portland,” Banks explains. “But we want to move further into East Portland and, eventually, Gresham.”

Combined, these two initiatives address issues regarding quantity and quality of food options in areas that could be considered Portland’s “food deserts.” Together, these initiatives will, according to Banks, “lead to an increased variety of healthy food options in the neighborhoods where people live, work and play.”

Do you live in a food desert? How would you like to see the lack of healthy, affordable food addressed in your neighborhood?