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Food Deserts Limit Access to Healthy Eating for Urban Core

By Rick Hellman, HCF/KHI News Service

“When I was a kid, my mother used to drive an hour to get food and I never knew why, until I grew up. White people have nice supermarkets. … There is nothing fresh in the black supermarket, unless you count ‘fresh from the can.’ There’s no red meat. The meat is brown. … All the fruits are nasty, too.”
-- Chris Rock, excerpt from his 2000 book “Rock This!”

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Things here today aren’t as bad as comedian Chris Rock made them out a decade ago in his famous bit comparing supermarkets in the suburbs to those in the urban core.

Indeed, the issue Rock pointed out with his biting social criticism – limited access to healthy food by inner-city residents -- is getting new attention from many different quarters.

For example, when First Lady Michele Obama visited Kansas City in July to address the annual convention of the NAACP, she spoke about eliminating so-called “food deserts” as part of the civil-rights struggle of the 21st century.

Food deserts are generally defined as those places where people live more than a mile from a supermarket and do not have access to a car. In practice, that encompasses both rural areas and vast swathes of the nation’s inner cities, where most mom-and-pop grocers have long since vanished and few full-line grocery stores have been built.

Gene Moffitt, a senior vice president of the KC-based Block and Co. real estate-development firm, cites the First Lady’s call to leadership on the issue, but he knows it will take more than good will to properly serve the grocery-shopping needs of inner-city residents.

In four decades in the business, Moffitt has helped to shepherd many large shopping-center projects to completion, including The Shops on Blue Parkway, which includes the center city’s nicest and newest grocery store, a Sunfresh.

But Moffitt has also seen some redevelopment projects – like the Linwood Shopping Center at Linwood Boulevard and Prospect Avenue – falter despite the best intentions. A Sunfresh grocery store that opened in that location in the late 1980s was closed a couple of years ago.

“There is more crime in the urban core,” Moffitt said. “Nobody can deny that. So you have to have a solid security system in place, 24-7. And then you have to run a clean store and give the people the products they want, and they will come. People there have money to spend on groceries, but many times they have to go outside the area to shop. “Based on the density in the urban core, there should be a grocery store every mile or so, but that is not the case.”

Moffitt said the added security needed at an inner-city store puts pressure on an operator’s bottom line and thus city, state and federal development subsidies can and should help offset those costs.

Beth Low, a former Missouri lawmaker who now directs the Kansas City Food Policy Coalition (kcfoodpolicy.ning.com), agrees that governments can help ameliorate the food-desert problem.

Food deserts are one of the two top issues for the KC Food Policy Coalition, which was formally launched in 2010.

“We are not going to set up a healthy-corner-store program or buy land and build a full-line grocery store, but we will identify policy barriers – public and private – that negatively impact a community’s ability to attract and retain full-service stores,” Low said.

Convincing a privately held company to change its policies might be difficult, or even impossible, Low said. But she cited the two-bag-per-person limit enforced by the area’s largest bus operator as an example of a public policy where change could help those who face challenges obtaining healthy food.

The Food Policy Coalition is working with another local coalition group – Building a Healthier Heartland (healthyheartland.ning.com) – on the issue, Low said.

Rev. Rayfield Burns, outreach minister at the Metropolitan Missionary Baptist Church, which sits across the street from the shuttered grocery store at the Linwood Shopping Center, said he hopes that the efforts of Low and others pay off soon for the sake of his church members and others.

“That’s what this whole thing is about -- people having access to healthy, fresh produce and meats,” said Rev. Burns. “Without a grocery store, they have no access to things that other communities have. They have to catch a bus or a cab to another community to use a full-line grocery store.”

Health News


  • The Commonwealth Fund, Feb. 24, 2015
  • US News & World Report, May 26, 2014
  • Fox News, May 11, 2015


  • The Kansas City Star, June 3, 2015
  • Kaiser Health News, June 4, 2015
  • KHI News Service, June 4, 2015