In an effort to bring fresh foods to residents of “food deserts” in Baltimore and Chicago that lack proximity to mainstream supermarkets, two online grocery projects are under way.
In Baltimore, the City Health Department last month launched the Virtual Supermarket Project, partnering with Santoni's Supermarket, a one-store independent located in Southeast Baltimore.
Residents in two underserved neighborhoods — Washington Village and part of East Baltimore — are able to order groceries online from Santoni's website at a local public library one day per week, and pick them up at the same location the next day. The library locations accept cash, credit, checks and food stamps.
Both food desert neighborhoods were identified as suffering from the health consequences of poor access to healthy foods. For example, out of 55 Baltimore communities, Washington Village, about six miles from Santoni's, has the sixth highest “mortality burden” for causes of death related to diet, including heart disease, stroke and diabetes, said the Baltimore City Health Department.
“In many densely populated cities, including Baltimore, residents of some communities must choose between shopping at small corner stores that lack fresh produce or paying a premium for a ride far outside their area. This is not a fair choice,” said Olivia D. Farrow, interim commissioner of the health department, in a statement. “We are hoping that if this program is successful, we can partner with more grocery stores and expand the program to other areas of Baltimore where there is need.”
The health department bundles the online orders and submits them on each of the two ordering days. Santoni's expects to deliver 20 to 24 orders on each of the two delivery days, said Rob Santoni, chief financial officer of the 75-year-old food retailer, and grandson of the founder. The store delivered eight orders to the drop-off point in East Baltimore — the Orleans Street Enoch Pratt Free Library, about three miles from his store — last month. The store uses its own staff to pick and deliver orders.
“We're a responsible grocer,” said Santoni. “We're as passionate about doing the right thing as the government. And we want to make sure the community remains viable so we will have customers.”
Santoni's has offered online ordering since 2001 and, together with phone orders and in-store purchases left by customers at the store, handles about 9,000 deliveries per year. “I wasn't getting a lot of orders from those [underserved] parts of town,” he said. “These are all new orders.”
Santoni noted that some residents of the food desert areas prefer to call in their orders rather than use a computer. The health department is working on a plan whereby it would collect phone orders and fax them to Santoni's or submit them online. The phone orders would be delivered to the libraries with the other online orders.
The health department pays Santoni's a lump delivery fee so that the residents do not have to be charged. Initial funding for delivery and other costs — though not for grocery bills — comes from a $60,000 grant from the 2009 federal stimulus package.
The Virtual Supermarket Project was developed by a 25-member Food Policy Task Force that included Santoni and representatives of activist groups and community associations. Seeking ways to improve access to fresh foods in underserved neighborhoods, the group came up with the online delivery idea and opted to work with Santoni's. “We were flattered,” he said.
Beginning in 2008, the project was piloted in churches and other community pick-up areas, but “none of those were as effective as the libraries,” Santoni said.
The health department is evaluating potential new order and pick-up sites with the City Recreation and Parks Department. As sites develop, the health department plans to incorporate an educational component on healthy foods/lifestyles into the program, including cooking demonstrations. Development of this model in Baltimore “can result in the Virtual Supermarket Project's adoption in other U.S. cities that struggle with food deserts,” the health department said on its website, www.baltimorehealth.org.
PEAPOD EXPLORES OPTIONS
In Chicago, online grocer Peapod, a division of Ahold, has launched the Healthy Families Project, an effort to explore how to offer online ordering to residents of food desert communities. In collaboration with communities group Neighbor Capital and food desert researcher Mari Gallagher, Peapod plans to release its findings during a neighborhood forum in May. The project does not receive government funding of any kind.
Peapod will leverage a block-by-block analysis by Gallagher to determine where online delivery of groceries would most likely reduce diabetes, positively impact the greatest number of children in terms of access to fresh foods, and positively impact the greatest population overall.
“There is an opportunity for Peapod to expand into new markets to respond to urgent needs and effect better outcomes for our children,” said Scott DeGraeve, Peapod's senior vice president and general manager in a statement. “We owe it to people living in food deserts to get involved.”
Peapod already delivers to some food desert areas, but does not deliver to some ZIP codes because of low Internet penetration, said Elana Margolis, spokeswoman for Peapod, whose business model depends on efficient routing of deliveries. Peapod stopped taking phone orders a few years ago.
Peapod is working with Chicago-based Neighbor Capital to develop “new solutions to food deserts that utilize their existing skills and capacities that are both practical and sustainable in improving community health through grocery access,” said John Piercy, founder and president of Neighbor Capital. Consumers ordering from libraries or local businesses is one strategy being considered, said Margolis. Peapod is also working on ways to make the online ordering fees less expensive for food desert residents, Margolis said.
Gallagher, principal of Chicago-based Mari Gallagher Research and Consulting Group, has identified the 100 city blocks in Chicago — which fall into ZIP codes 60636, 60644 and 60628 — with the greatest opportunities for intervention by Peapod. “The families at greatest risk would likely be those living in those 100 blocks,” she said in a statement.
Gallagher's analysis includes measurements of the distance from the center of each city block to the closest small, medium and large mainstream supermarket as well as to the closest “fringe food establishment” (convenience store, liquor store or fast-food establishment), weighted for population density. From these measurements she determines a block's “food balance” score, an assessment of access to fresh foods, which she said is a predictor of diabetes. She also links these scores to diet-related morbidity data to calculate “years of potential life gain” from increased food access, while accounting for factors like income, race and education.
In 2007, Gallagher conducted a Kraft Foods-sponsored study of attitudes toward online grocery shopping in underserved communities, finding a lack of knowledge about the process of online ordering and concerns about using a credit card to place an online order, though interest in ordering online as well.
Gallagher does not think online grocery delivery would deter the development of physical supermarkets in the Chicago food desert areas. “I see this is a positive activity that could spur additional market development, not a detriment to traditional approaches,” she said. “There's not a single solution to food deserts.”
Gallagher's 2006 report, “Examining the Impact of Food Deserts on Public Health in Chicago,” identified more than 630,000 Chicagoans living in food deserts. In 2009, her “Chicago Food Desert Progress Report” showed that Chicago's food deserts had shrunk by 1.4 square miles, benefiting nearly 24,000 people, but that more than 600,000 residents, most of them African American, continue to reside in food deserts. One Food 4 Less store that opened in the food desert area after 2006 improved food access scores for 307 blocks, she wrote in her 2009 report.
“Unless access to healthy food continues to improve, we predict that, over time, food desert residents will continue to have greater rates of premature illness and death,” Gallagher wrote in the 2009 report.
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