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Distance complicates, impedes healthy diets for some

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Carrying groceries
"It's a pain using a taxi," said Erica Thatcher. "It's an extra $15 there and back and the bus isn't practical for carrying lots of grocery bags." Thatcher lives east of the Plaza Super One Foods without a car and is dependent on taxis to transport her to and from the grocery store. Here, she packs groceries into the back of a taxi Monday, Feb. 13, 2012 at the Plaza Super One Foods in Duluth, Minn.
Derek Montgomery for MPR

For many people, a trip to the grocery store is a routine errand, but for Salaam Witherspoon, it's an ordeal.

"It's horrible, it's horrible," said Witherspoon, who lives in the Lincoln Park neighborhood a few miles west of downtown Duluth. "It's actually a dread to go to the store."

The monthly trip is about three miles each way, and Witherspoon doesn't have a car. When she can't get a ride, she takes the bus. Lugging home groceries and her 10-month-old son is tough, so on the way home she usually splurges and spends $13 for a cab.

For her and other low-income Minnesotans, the challenge of buying enough healthy food is complicated by distance. Thousands of people live in communities without a grocery store — leaving them to pay more, in time and money.

Such neighborhoods are scattered all over Minnesota, including cities like Duluth where there are plenty of grocery stores in more affluent neighborhoods.

If Lincoln Park had a grocery store, Witherspoon's routine would be different.

"I think that I could go shopping once a week instead of going shopping once a month," she said. "I wouldn't have to cram everything together."

Salaam Witherspoon
Salaam Witherspoon, 26, lives on a low income in the Lincoln Park area of Duluth, Minn. The nearest grocery store is more than two miles away, and it's difficult for Witherspoon to get there. She wants a grocery store in her neighborhood, and says she would eat healthier if she could more easily get to healthy, affordable food.
MPR Photo/Julie Siple

Sometimes her vegetables go bad before she can eat them.

Witherspoon, 26, is a single mother, who attends Lake Superior College. Because she often has little time and money, she often buys her food closer to home.

"If you can't go to the grocery store, you're going to the gas station," she said, acknowledging that doing so comes at a price.

"You're spending all your food money on frozen pizzas and Banquet chicken and chips and pop," she said. "You don't have the opportunity to get tomatoes, or carrots and broccoli. You know, you don't get that kind of stuff."

Witherspoon lives in what researchers call an urban food desert. It's a low-income area where a large percentage of residents have to travel more than a mile to a grocery store. Gas stations, convenience stores and fast food restaurants are their closest options.

The situation in Lincoln Park is drawing increased attention, in large part thanks to Adam Pine, a geographer at the University of Minnesota Duluth. He is studying how people in the neighborhood get food.

The lack of nearby grocery stores poses a real problem for 10 to 15 percent of residents, Pine said. With little money, and without cars, they do almost all their shopping at convenience stores.

Overturned cart
An overturned grocery cart rests near the sidewalk along East Superior Street Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2012 in Duluth, Minn. Shopping carts from the Plaza Super One Foods are routinely scattered throughout downtown and the east hillside.
Derek Montgomery for MPR

"If you come here at night, you'll see a lot of foot traffic coming, kind of walking past the gas pumps to get into the store," Pine said. "And there's not food for a meal. You're mostly buying frozen pizzas and things like that. And based on our research, you're spending quite a lot more than those goods would cost at other stores."

A basket of food costs about 50 percent more at local convenience stores than at big supermarkets, notes Pine, who said residents want a grocery store.

John McKinney, owner of the Little Store, said Pine's estimate sounds high. He said the store matches grocery store prices on some items, like milk. But he admits it prices other goods higher.

"You have to remember, the supermarkets, the volume they do — they buy truckloads," he said. "We buy threes and fours and fives of things. We don't even buy full cases of these things because they wouldn't move."

Inside the Little Store, customers buy milk and frozen pizza. Some residents would like the convenience store to offer more affordable, healthy food.

McKinney said he'd be happy to carry healthier food if it made business sense.

"If people would buy it, we'd certainly handle it," he said. "But people sit there and say they want this product, yet if we put it out there, very few buy it."

Duluth Little Store
The Little Store in Duluth's Lincoln Park neighborhood serves as a grocery store for many residents in the dense neighborhood who cannot make the nearly three-mile trip to the nearest grocery store.
Derek Montgomery for MPR

When the store expanded a few years ago, it added more fresh food, but had to throw away meat and produce because it didn't sell.

Grocery store chains left many low-income neighborhoods years ago because it was hard to do business, said David Livingston, a Milwaukee-based supermarket analyst.

"At the end of the day, grocery stores are just having trouble making a profit in these areas," Livingston said. "Therefore they choose not to go."

The chains also may face higher security costs, find it difficult to recruit employees to work in such areas and worry about being able to draw enough customers from a two- to three-mile radius.

"A lot of times in low-income areas, schools have these free breakfast and lunch programs for kids," Livingston said. "That tends to eat into the grocery store business a bit."

But advocates for the poor in Lincoln Park say without access to healthy food, residents have no chance of improving their diets.

Community groups hope to lure a small grocer, and seek more transportation options for people in the neighborhood. They've already organized a neighborhood garden program that will sell discounted produce in Lincoln Park this summer.