In ‘food deserts,’ attracting grocers remains a struggle

BOYNTON BEACH — A modest green building on the south side of Boynton Beach Boulevard houses the Ocean Avenue Green Market, offering a small selection of fruit, vegetables and a bakery.

Operating the small-scale market has been a battle for owner Sherry Johnson.

“We’re in a very poor economic community,” Johnson said. “It’s hard to get support.”

Yet nearby residents badly need access to fresh food. The Ocean Avenue market is located at the edge of one of Palm Beach County’s 27 “food deserts”, defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as an area that has little to no access to a grocery store offering fresh produce, whole grains and milk within one mile.

Food deserts are a concern across the country. A January Princeton University study found that people who live in a food desert are 25 to 46 percent less likely to have a healthy diet than those with a supermarket near their home.

A lack of knowledge about what foods are healthy contributes to obesity in low-income areas.

Research done on the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program found that food education can change eating habits and lead to higher consumption of fruits and vegetables.

The federal government has stepped in to address the problem, launching programs like Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign, which addresses childhood obesity issues.

The Healthy Food Financing Initiative, a collaboration between the U.S. Departments of Agriculture, Treasury and Health and Human Services, is intended to fund food programs in areas where healthy food is not readily available.

The agriculture department earlier this month announced $10 million in funding for its Farmer’s Market Promotion Program that provides grants from $5,000 to $100,000 to any agriculture producer who sells a product directly to consumers. Program Manager Carmen Humphrey said that this year’s priority is food deserts.

For Sherry Johnson, securing a grant would be a lifeline.

“If we get the USDA money, that will provide us with some marketing capabilities,” Johnson said.

The lack of a supermarket near the four-mile stretch of the Seacrest Boulevard corridor has long been a problem, said Vivian Brooks, executive director for Boynton Beach’s Community Redevelopment Agency.

Major grocery chains like Publix and Winn-Dixie build in densely populated areas. But the area identified as a food desert in Boynton Beach only has about 10,000 residents, which is not enough to attract them.

“It’s not easy to build a grocery store; it has certain needs.” Brooks said. “And the private sector doesn’t see a need.”

Boynton Beach is redeveloping homes around Martin Luther King and Seacrest Boulevards, to attract more people to the area.

Brooks said the CRA has offered free land and grants to potential developers like Equity One to build in the area, but no one has taken them up on it. They later tried opening a green market, a successful staple in some cities, but shut it down because there was no demand.

“We’ve tried the green market concept and I don’t know why, but it doesn’t work,” Brooks said.

Jesse Goldfinger, the owner of the Woolbright Farmers Market said, green markets do work if the public has adequate access. His market has been located on heavily traveled Woolbright Road for the past eight years.

“I’ve got traffic coming in from I-95 and the beach,” Golfinger said. “If I moved my whole operation between Seacrest and MLK, I wouldn’t get all of this.”

For areas that fail to attract big box supermarkets, discount grocery stores or a city-supported market would be options.

In Riviera Beach, where almost 12,000 people have limited access to grocery stores, plans are in the works for a city and county collaboration to fund a public market that offers fresh produce. Community Redevelopment Agency Director Tony Brown said the market would be at the Municipal Marina, about five blocks outside the food desert.

Like Brooks, Brown said that it is a challenge to attract grocers to the area.

“The retail model doesn’t take into account communities where there is a lower-income,” Brown said. “But there is just as much a need.”

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