Many low-income Americans have to make a trade-off when it comes to paying for housing and other necessities, such as health care and food. In fact, some 40 million Americans battled with food insecurity in 2017, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
On top of that, it’s a struggle for many just to access healthy food. Over 23 million Americans, including 6.5 million children, live in “food deserts,” areas that are more than 1 mile away from a supermarket.
To address these issues, affordable housing providers across the nation are taking notice and working to improve residents’ access to healthy food options.
1. Mobile Market
It was taking people up to three hours to ride the bus to buy groceries and return home so the Housing Authority of Bowling Green decided to bring groceries to them.
In March, the Kentucky agency launched its mobile grocery store, which makes about 20 stops a week at public housing developments and other low-income apartment communities.
“It’s been the produce that’s really sold,” says Katie Miller, special projects director at the housing authority. Bananas have been one of the most popular items.
The program operates in many neighborhoods that are “food deserts,” areas with limited access to affordable and nutritious food. Many residents do not have cars and without a grocery store within walking distance, they relied on a bus to travel to a Walmart or a Kroger. Residents could then only buy what they could carry on the bus. When they couldn’t get to a grocery store, they picked up items at nearby convenience stores, where healthy food options are limited and items are often more expensive.
The idea for the mobile market came from Abraham Williams, the housing authority’s executive director, who recalled a truck that would come by and sell vegetables to families when he was growing up.
The Warren County Public Schools donated a 34-passenger bus and driver training to the effort. Officials then spent approximately $16,000 to retrofit the bus with a cooler, a freezer, and shelving for canned goods and items, according to Miller. In addition, the housing authority had to arrange for a building with electricity to store the food.
Grants and donations from churches and organizations have helped get the project rolling. Houchens Industries is also providing food items at wholesale to keep the goods affordable.
The housing authority will continue to fundraise and seek sponsorships to make the project sustainable.
2. Community Service
Chicago’s Woodlawn neighborhood has its first full-service grocery store in more than 40 years, with the recent opening of a 48,000-square-foot Jewel-Osco. The store is a key part of a sweeping transformation of the area led by Preservation of Affordable Housing (POAH), which is replacing Grove Parc Plaza, an old Sec. 8 development, and revitalizing the area with approximately 900 new units of affordable and mixed-income housing. POAH leaders recognized early on that the community desperately needed a grocery store. To make the store a reality, they sold part of their land to pave the way for the Jewel-Osco. “We wanted it as an amenity and an economic driver for the community,” says Bill Eager, POAH vice president. The store not only provides residents with fresh healthy foods, it’s a major employer in the community. Of the roughly 500 jobs that the store filled, 376 of those positions are filled by people in the neighborhood. “It’s a community store in more ways than one,” Eager says.
3. Meal Time
A commercial kitchen at the Potiker Family Senior Residence in San Diego provides about 700,000 meals a year for needy seniors. When Chelsea Investment Corp. and Serving Seniors developed the 200-unit affordable housing community about 16 years ago, they included a 4,000-square-foot kitchen that now provides breakfast and lunch for residents at Potiker and nine other sites as well as delivered meals for homebound seniors. For many participants, these meals are the only ones they get each day. The kitchen also provides meals for The Salvation Army. The housing and the kitchen came together at a time when Serving Seniors needed a new kitchen and the organization was seeing more homeless seniors seeking assistance, says Paul Downey, president and CEO of the longtime nonprofit. The meal program receives federal support and recipients provide small donations when they can, but no one is turned away.
4. Global Garden
There’s a garden plot for each family at Mercy Housing’s 53-unit Grace Apartments in Denver. The community’s diverse population includes residents from Burma, Bhutan, Ethiopia, Sierra Leone, and Somalia, and no two plots are the same, with families typically growing vegetables that are used in their culture’s cuisine.
5. Urban Oasis
San Francisco’s Tenderloin District is one of the only neighborhoods in the city without a full-service grocery store. To help residents in the area access fresh, affordable food, Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corp. started the Tenderloin People’s Garden in 2010. In addition, the nonprofit has seven rooftop gardens at its buildings and more on the way.
6. Fresh Choice
In Cincinnati, The Community Builders (TCB) has been digging in to strengthen the Avondale neighborhood, including revitalizing the Avondale Town Center—a previously underutilized retail strip center—with a mix of new and existing commercial tenants on the ground floor, including a new grocery store, a laundromat, a health center, and 119 units of mixed-income housing. Of the more than 75,000 square feet of commercial space at Avondale Town Center, roughly 6,000 will help bring fresh and healthy food to the community. Residents have started to move into the new development, and the new commercial amenities are targeted to open in the next three to six months. In another move, TCB allocated $2.5 million in New Markets Tax Credits to help build a new grocery store and culinary school in Richmond, Va.