Supermarket Increases Access to Healthy Food

Upper Falls, New York

United States
When a fire destroyed the only grocery store in these numbers, the federal Department of Housing and town, Upper Falls, NY residents had no local access to affordable, fresh foods. Those who could traveled miles to the nearest suburban supermarket, but the added time and travel costs strained many residents. Recognizing the injustice of living in a community with such limited food options, residents and activists collaborated with local government officials to lobby for a new supermarket. After five years of tireless efforts and shifting strategies, the community group Partners Through Food convinced TOPS, a major grocery chain, to bring a shopping plaza and full-service supermarket to the neighborhood. The new shopping plaza opened in 1997 and since then residents say the retail area has transformed the neighborhood. Now they have easy access to affordable, healthy foods which research suggests encourages more nutritious eating.

Rochester, NY is a city with 219,773 residents. The Upper Falls community is located in the northeast quadrant of the city, and is home to 5,000 residents, the majority of whom are African American and Puerto Rican, according to the 2000 US Census. From 1994 to 1996, the volume of food stamps distributed in the three zip codes surrounding the Upper Falls supermarket site totaled approximately $24 million, reflecting high rates of low-income residents. Because of Urban Development has designated the City of Rochester an Enterprise Community, making public funds available for redevelopment.

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During the 1980’s, the number of supermarkets in the Rochester metropolitan area dropped steadily from 42 in 1970 to a meager 8 by 1995.  With only eight supermarkets to serve Rochester’s residents, access to affordable, healthy food options had become severely limited. When the last supermarket in Upper Falls burned down in the spring of 1992, it was the final straw. After the fire, residents who wished to shop at supermarkets rather than high-priced, low-variety con- venience stores were forced to travel long distances to outlying suburbs. Increased grocery shopping travel times and transportation costs burdened low-income residents, many of whom made their purchases with food stamps.

Frustrated that the fire had destroyed their only option for affordable, healthy food, Upper Falls residents started meeting in 1992 to brainstorm solutions. “There was a core group that started the ball rolling and then after an early series of meetings we began to reach out to the community to learn about the interests of neighborhood residents,” said Hank Herrera, who took on a lead organizing role.

In the spring of 1994, about 30 people stormed the City Council, shouting: “Apples, Beans and Collard Greens!”

They quickly decided that opening a local co-operative market was not feasible because of the resources needed and the lack of variety that such a store could realistically offer. “What we learned early on was that people wanted a full service supermarket. Basically, they said, we want a market that looks like the suburban supermarket. We’re as good as the people in the suburbs and we deserve a store that will meet all of our shopping needs and look good, too.”

So the group began to explore different options for bringing a supermarket back to the site where the old one had burned down. At the time, two groups were independently working to bring a grocery store to the same site, the Grocery Group and the Community Development Block Grant Coalition whose job it was to ensure that community development block grant monies were being spent appropriately. Soon, the two groups joined forces, merging into Partners Through Food. Made up primarily of concerned community residents, the group also included activists. Eventually, representatives from the planning departments of the City of Rochester and Monroe County began attending.

Partners Through Food decided to do research that would demonstrate the need for a supermarket. “We began checking license plate numbers in the parking lots at the suburban supermarkets and following up to see where those license plates were registered,” said Herrera. “We could see people were coming from our zip code. We also got data from the Monroe County Department of Social Services and found that food stamps were issued and used outside of the community in the suburban stores to the tune of $17 to $18 million originating from the zip codes right around the proposed store site.”

Meanwhile, others began to consider building on the proposed supermarket site. One developer planned to take over the area to expand a social service agency called Action for a Better Community (ABC). When Partners Through Food expressed their concerns, the developer responded: “Face reality, there will never be a supermarket on that corner,” Herrera recalled. Residents were furious. And in the spring of 1994, about 30 people stormed the City Council with paper bags full of apples, beans and collard greens shouting: “Apples, Beans and Collard Greens! We don’t want no ABC!” They dumped the food in front of the building. This event led Mayor William Johnson to get involved. He sided with the people, making a commitment to help bring the store to the area. By collaborating with the mayor, Partners Through Food was finally able to make progress. “The developer had bought the building for $300,000, but the building process stopped cold because the people didn’t want it,” Herrera explained.

The group approached the major grocery chains with the research data they had accumulated. But despite what they thought were compelling numbers, the stores expressed concern that they couldn’t make enough money in this area. “That baffled us,” recalled Herrera. Finally,TOPS, a multinational retail supermarket corporation, expressed interest. “I think what it finally came down to was that a major supermarket chain that competes with TOPS began to move into their market territory,” he said. So behind closed doors, the mayor and TOPS began to negotiate.

“We also got data from the Monroe County Department of Social Services and found that food stamps were issued and used outside of the community in the suburban stores to the tune of $17 to $18 million” said Herrera.

The supermarket chain agreed to build four new stores and expand an existing store to serve area residents. TOPS invested the $28 million needed to open the supermarket and the city agreed to con- tribute public money to the project.2 Public funds came through the Federal Enterprise Community Zone program, the Community Development Block Grant, the Urban Renewal Trust Fund, and the HUD 108 program. This money contributed to the construction of an entire shopping plaza around the supermarket, including a new police station, retail stores, and a medical office.

Six years after residents first rallied, a new supermarket opened in the plaza that had previously been run down and abandoned. “Now, all the stores are occupied,” said Herrera. “TOPS is there, it has a very nice appearance.”

Diverse Partners Collaborate to Build Healthy Environments

Partners Through Food developed when two independent groups united around a common goal: to bring a supermarket to the area. The merged group included concerned Upper Falls residents, activists, funders, people from the faith community, and representatives from the planning departments of the City of Rochester and Monroe County. Local organizations including the Coalition of Northeast Associations, the Regional Food Bank and St. Bridget’s Church were instrumental throughout the entire process of lobbying for the market.

By hosting community meetings and leading lobbying efforts aimed at city government, Partners Through Food played a vital role as a community leader and convener. Members led outreach and education initiatives and coordinated community meetings, often held at St. Bridget’s church, which donated space and time for meetings. The Coalition of Northeast Associations and Regional Food Bank served as valuable community partners to engage residents in community meetings and to build political clout for the effort, which was critical for obtaining the buy-in of city government. With such noticeable, established partners, Mayor Johnson committed himself to the cause and played a crucial role in initiating negotiations with TOPS, the Buffalo-based grocery chain that eventually partnered with the city to bring a store to the Upper Falls neighborhood as part of a five-store, citywide effort.

Healthy Change in Local Environments

The new supermarket and shopping plaza have greatly enhanced the quality of life of the Upper Falls community. The development is beautiful, said Herrera. “Life was there again. It transformed the neighborhood.” The store is thriving, and neighborhood residents—rather than needing to drive—now have a store within walking distance that offers a wide variety of food options. The city continues to encourage residents to shop at the new store by conducting community outreach efforts on behalf of the store, improving public safety by reassigning a police station to the area and including several service agencies such as banks in the mall where the store is located.

The neighborhood has also benefited from additional employment opportunities presented by the retail stores. During negotiations with TOPS, Partners Through Food insisted the store hire a percentage of people from the neighborhood. “To my knowledge they have been true to that in all the time they’ve been here,” said Herrera.

It was only with community support and perseverance that they were able to create change to the built environment.

Although a health-impact evaluation of this particular project has not yet been done, published studies document the health benefits of supermarket access. Emerging research suggests that introducing supermarkets into urban, low- income communities can improve dietary behaviors. A landmark 2002 study based on over 10,000 residents in 221 census tracts (Maryland, North Carolina, Mississippi, Minnesota) by Morland et al. found that the local food environment was associated with residents’ dietary intakes.5 The authors found that African American residents increased their fruit and vegetable intake by an average of 32% for each supermarket in their census tract. Although 73% of African American residents had small neighborhood grocery stores in their neighborhoods, the presence of these establishments had little association with meeting recommended dietary intake.

An evaluation study conducted in the United Kingdom examined the link between introducing a supermarket into a food-retail deprived community and improvements in dietary behavior.6 The study used fresh fruit and vegetable consumption as proxy measures for healthy diets before and after the introduction of a large chain supermarket in the community. A significant increase was noted in participants with the poorest “before” diets; 75% increased their fruit and vegetable consumption after the supermarket opened, doubling their mean weekly fruit and vegetable portions. These same participants also switched their main source of fruit and vegetable purchasing from limited- range/budget stores in the “before” period to the new supermarket. These preliminary results indicate that opening a supermarket may produce positive benefits for the diets of the most nutritionally at risk.

“When working to affect community-level change, recognize your limits and seek support, resources, and funding from key partners,” recommended Herrera. This effort required the buy-in and support of city government and a major grocery chain. The support and resources of numerous community groups helped build momentum, provided the impetus for political involvement, and provided businesses with a market incentive to collaborate. “Stress the enormous amount of money and food stamps spent on food that is lost to other neighborhoods as a way to demonstrate the value of investing in the community.” In the end, it was only with community support and perseverance that the Upper Falls community was able to create the type of change to the built environment that would ensure access to healthy food and services for community residents.

Today the TOPS Corporation is using the success of the Upper Falls supermarket as a model of how business can contribute to urban redevelopment. The supermarket provides the community with higher quality food at lower prices than previous smaller stores could offer and always offers a steady supply of fresh meat and produce. The newly developed plaza has transformed the neighborhood and reconfigured the way people see that area.
“It wouldn’t have happened except for the fact that people worked to make it happen,” said Herrera. “Every time I go by that corner, I remember people saying ‘face reality’ and I smile. This is our reality.”

Originally printed in The Prevention Institute The Built Environment and Health: 11 Profiles of Neighborhood Transformation, July 2004

Program Contact:
Hank Herrera
President/CEO Center for Popular Research, Education and Policy
Phone: 585-473-4630
Email: [email protected]

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