When Samantha Pounder and Hannah Choi imagine the shelves of a savory shop, they see fresh aloe and kale instead of the usual sugary, wrapped, and salty desserts.

It is a vision that will soon become a reality when the couple opens Muki Market in Washington DC, one of the newest additions to a growing movement to supply the big city food deserts with healthy stores.

“The reality is that there is a need for more fresh food opportunities,” says Pounder, director of food access at Arcadia, a local nonprofit. “When there are no grocery stores within walking distance or even a reasonable driving distance that becomes a problem.”

In Boston, Philadelphia, Indianapolis, San Jose, California, and Newark, New Jersey, a movement of entrepreneurs is opening similar stores to combat a practice known as “retail redlining” when deliberate policies implemented over time create food deserts mostly in black and low-income neighborhoods.

A sign points to the Arcadia Farms mobile farmers market in Washington DC.
A sign points to the Arcadia Farms mobile farmers market in Washington DC. Photo: Hector Emanuel / The Guardian

Brian Lang, director of the National Campaign for Access to Healthy Food at the Food Trust, said: “Failing to aggressively combat the circumstances that led to the lack of retail, food companies and public sector development agencies in basically, have determined the low Philadelphia income communities. ”

Situations is a similar situation in other US cities. The U.S. Department of Agriculture provides $ 3 million to $ 5 million a year for a Healthy Food Financing Program, but Lang said that is not enough. He thinks more money is needed to support programs such as the Food Trust Food Stores Initiative, which provides technical and financial support to healthy stores.

A model of this move can be found on Corner 62 and Market St. in West Philadelphia, where Arnett Woodall, who passes by “Unc,” has been trying to raise his neighborhood through food for more than a decade.

Woodall says there are many “suburban” grocery stores and cakes in the area, but warns that items such as hoagies are deadly. “You can get a hoagie on every corner in West Philly, but bread turns to sugar and causes diabetes, cheese gives you high cholesterol and iceberg lettuce is essentially water,” says Woodall, adding that processed meat is also a risk. With “You need to educate people about what healthy eating is and what it looks like.”

Two young boys eat during a free breakfast for children, sponsored by the Black Panther Party in 1969.
Two young boys eat during a free kids breakfast sponsored by the 1969 Black Panther Party. Photo: Bev Grant / Getty Images

Woodall’s free food program was inspired by the Black Panther Free Breakfast Program for School Children in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and he uses his shop to teach business skills to the young people he employs. West Phillie Produce was the only food open in the area during the racial uprisings that took to the streets of Philadelphia in June 2020. Consumers walk more than two miles to buy food from the small corner store that has become a beacon of hope for the neighborhood. .

“People come here and they don’t know how to involve the community. Growing up, our shop owners were Black and they hired people from the community, “says Woodall.” Now they’re out of the community and that matters. “

‘Strengthening communities through food’

Many other cities are following Woodall’s book of games, including DC, where Pounder and Choi are setting up shop.

Washington DC recently launched a $ 3 million initiative to bring “new food and retailers” to wards 4, 7 and 8 in the city. Pounder and Choi received a $ 100,000 grant from the Office of the Vice President for Economic Planning and Development (DMPED) as part of the Neighborhood Prosperity Fund. The money is being used to complete the construction of a building owned by Choi’s mother, which was once a Black-owned seafood market in the Fort Dupont neighborhood.

The Arcadia Farms mobile market sells fresh fruits and vegetables in the Fort Dupont neighborhood of Washington DC.
The Arcadia Farms mobile market sells fresh fruits and vegetables in the Fort Dupont neighborhood of Washington DC. Photo: Hector Emanuel / The Guardian

So far, space is being used as a mobile market in which hundreds of people rely every week. The market operator, Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food & Agriculture, said its service is a temporary, unsustainable solution for the community.

“We want to work without a job ourselves,” said Pamela Hess, Arcadia ‘s chief executive. “We are like a bridge, or a Band-Aid, and we want to have a permanent solution.”

Arcadia joined another venue in the city until it received a grant to pay for a weekly market. Then, Arcadia gave them technical assistance, returned all their sales data and “continued”. Hess is repeating the process with Pounder and hopes to do so again with another mobile market in the 8th arrondissement, DC’s poorest department and Arcadia’s highest revenue site.

“There is an ability to be a grocery store that a small store, that was not created to do this or is not interested in doing so,” does not, “Hess said.

Many small businesses like corner shops do not collect products because it is very perishable and has a small profit margin with a lot of waste. But Woodall, who was named activist of the year in 2019 by SustainPHL, says this is just an excuse. He has partnered with Whole Foods to distribute food through what he calls the “community table” outside his shop.

“We are like a bridge and we want there to be a permanent solution,” said Pamela Hess, Arcadia ‘s chief executive. Photo: Hector Emanuel / The Guardian

“I reuse food I don’t use making salads and smoothies and give it away,” Woodall says. “We have provided thousands of foods in seven years. Before the food goes bad, I make sure it goes to my community.”

Pounder’s vision for the Muk Market is also driven by the community. As part of DC City funding, Pounder and Choi need to hire neighborhood staff to actively increase revenue in neighborhood 7. The people of Fort Dupont are the key to Muki Market success, and Pounder wants to take it one step further. further by “activating the block”. She is regular at the barber a few doors down and has established relationships with many of the residents who buy in the mobile market.

“I took the time to get to know people because I’m not from here and that ‘s just good work,” she said as a woman stopped to hug him. “We aim to have a calendar of events, pumpkins for Halloween and someone to teach children gardening.”

To offset the costs, Pounder plans to offer ready-made items like coffee, breakfast sandwiches and Korean food – a homage to Choi’s history. But Muki Market demographics are unique. Fort Dupont is home to a large Caribbean community, which presents an exciting challenge for entrepreneurs.

Hundreds of people rely on Arcadia's mobile market for fresh food.
Hundreds of people rely on Arcadia’s mobile market for fresh food. Photo: Hector Emanuel / The Guardian

“We have received requests for turmeric root, aloe and items included in the Italian diet,” she says. “I hate to call it the new age food because it is the food that is as connected to our roots as the Black people.”

The Italian diet, is a vegan diet followed by Rastafarians consisting of kale, squash, callaloo, tofu, fruits, beans, legumes and dishes from African and Indian cuisine. Vegan and vegetarian diets have become more popular within the Black community in recent years and for many people the adoption of African foods has been a form of food justice.

These community corner shops are just a small part of what is needed to give more people access to healthy food.

Ellen Vollinger, legal director and advocacy director on behalf of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP / food stamps) at the Center for Food Research and Action, says people have a tendency to romanticize smaller interventions.

Farmers markets and healthy corner shops are a help, but Vollinger said, “You have to multiply it by a lot to make a trace.”

She insists the SNAP program has the biggest impact. Earlier this month the Biden administration announced new rules for the largest increase in benefits in the history of the program, and which will take effect in October. Average monthly benefits, which were $ 121 per person before the pandemic, will increase by $ 36 permanently, according to the New York Times.

Ravina Gordon and her daughter Skylah, 4, buy Arcadia Farms in the mobile market.
Ravina Gordon and her daughter Skylah, 4, buy Arcadia Farms in the mobile market. Photo: Hector Emanuel / The Guardian

“While there is an increase in SNAP in farmers’ markets, this will never be a sufficient replacement for all of people’s food needs,” Vollinger said. “Most of the benefits that are spent and redeemed tend to be in larger food environments, because that’s how most Americans buy and they have the widest selection.”

The biggest hurdle to healthy eating is price, according to a June report released by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, supporting Vollinger’s argument. Muki Market is not a farmers market, so they are not eligible to offer the “Double Bucks” program, which allows buyers to double their EBT (electronic benefit transfer) amount for most items. However, Pounder says they will accept SNAP and expect the mobile market as a pop-up.

Although the farmers market and healthy corner shops may not address the issue of access to healthy food, Woodall says Black-led green feeders are a must. He wants to see fruits and vegetables in every corner.

“The concept is to strengthen and empower communities through food,” he says. “I want to show individuals that you can build Black Wall Street from scratch.”