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To Offset Loss Of Grocery Stores, City Tries Alternate Tactics

(via Flickr/KOMUnews/Mike Anderson)

Last week, Schnucks announced it was closing its store on Grand Boulevard in north St. Louis. The closure adds to the "food desert" in that part of the city. However, there are several programs in St. Louis that are attempting to make it easier for people to have access to fresh, healthy food. The map above shows some of the full-service grocery stores in St. Louis. The Schnucks that is closing is the large circle.

The opening of three grocery stores in St. Louis just a few months ago added to the perception that the city was trying hard to shrink its "food desert," the term used to describe a large area of a city that has no full-service supermarket. That effort took a hit last week, however, with the announcement that Schnucks was closing one of its two remaining stores on the city's north side, an area already suffering from a major shortage of full-service supermarkets. 

Operators of the grocery chain said the store at 4127 North Grand Blvd. is set to close on May 10, claiming the store had run a deficit since the chain acquired the store in 1995 from the National supermarket chain. The action means the store at 3431 Union Blvd. at Natural Bridge Avenue, will be the only Schnucks property in the city of St. Louis north of  Delmar Boulevard.  

Schnucks has closed stores in other parts of the region, but the area that seems to be hardest hit is north St. Louis. There are still a few grocery stores in that part of town. Some displaced customers will be able to buy food at an Aldi store at 3616 Natural Bridge Ave., just north of the Schnucks location. But for customers seeking other choices and wider food selections, the closing will mean traveling farther from home to find another full-service grocery stores.

Credit Robert Joiner
A couple with their groceries sit at a bus stop on the north side last week.

The search won’t be easy because more than 50 percent of people living near the soon-to-be shuttered store don’t have automobiles, according to data collected in a survey for the Department of Nutrition and Dietetics at Saint Louis University. 

“Some won’t have transportation to get to another Schnucks, which might be miles away,” said Lauren Landfried, a dietitian and instructor in the Department of Nutrition and Dietetics at Saint Louis University.

“Convenience stores are going to be more prevalently used. We are giving people more opportunities to not get good food, and that promotes obesity,” she said.

City officials say about about 33 percent of adults in St. Louis and 32 percent and adults in St.Louis County are overweight. Landfried said the numbers  have important implications across the region and especially in areas such as the North Grand neighborhood where the Schnucks store is located. Without easy access to healthy food, people are more likely to opt for the junk food or fried food typically found in convenience stores. Additionally, she said, 54.6 percent of people in the area near the store receive food stamps, now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP.

Credit St. Louis Health Department
Lauren Landfried said losing a full-service grocery store makes it harder to find healthy food options.

“So we have a very high rate of very low income people in that area,” she said. 

One glimmer of hope in Schnucks’ announcement was that the grocer would leave most major store fixtures in place in case the owner of the building, which Schnucks leased, is able to attract another grocer to the site. 

Not a fatality

Mayor Francis Slay blogged recently that the store's closing “was not a good sign” from a public health standpoint. He added that, “One fewer Schnucks is a setback, but not a fatal blow.”

He was referring to the many initiatives the city and several partners have set into motion to address hunger, obesity and the loss of grocery stores. The initiatives include more than 200 gardens, that have come about from a collaboration with various neighborhood groups and Gateway Greening, a private nonprofit organization. The gardens are distributed somewhat evenly on both sides of the "Delmar divide,"  according to Michael L. Sorth, executive director of Gateway Greening.

Sorth had no immediate information on how many of the gardens are situated in the vicinity of the Schnucks store on North Grand Boulevard. His program is the only substantial gardening project in the region. He said the program is having an impact in making more fresh food available for use by families, in food pantries and elsewhere. While praising all involved in the gardening project, he added that the work doesn’t begin to match the impact of a single full-service supermarket.

Beating back the desert

St. Louis has another promising initiative to combat the food desert.  It's called the Healthy Corner Store and it's a joint project between St. Louis city agencies and the Extension Center at the University of Missouri at St. Louis. Kara Lubischer, the Extension official coordinating the project, said participants include about half a dozen businesses in strategic locations in St. Louis. 

The stores must be in areas considered food deserts and they must have the ability to engage and interact with residents in numerous ways. Neighborhood leadership teams, for example, are partnered with a store and are tasked with setting up outreach activities. These range from providing nutrition education classes to conducting food taste tests inside stores — all part of engaging residents. 

Among the most successful corner stores are Manchester Market in the Forest Park Southeast neighborhood at 4519 Manchester Ave.; and the Regal Meat Market, 5791 Thekla Ave., in the Walnut Park East neighborhood in the far northwest part of the city. 

All the stores had to set goals of boosting by 5 percent the amount of their healthy food inventory. Lubischer said the stores have exceeded that goal by an average of 25 percent. 

Like Sorth of Gateway Greening, Lubischer doubts that the Healthy Corner Store could ever take the place of full-service supermarkets. But, she said, the program, now in its third year, has had a positive impact because it has spread more knowledge to customers about healthy food choices available to them.

The public tends to forget, she said, that supermarkets represent a lot more than places where consumers can buy food.

“They are economic drivers,” Lubischer said. “They employ a good number of people, and they offer teenagers an opportunity to get jobs. They also help improve neighborhoods. People want to move to the neighborhood because the amenities are there. That’s why supermarkets are such a plus.”

The void remains

The gardening and grocery efforts don't begin to fill the void in some locations, based on data of what’s known as grocery retail leakage, Lubischer said. Leakage is defined as the difference between the retail demand in a given area and the amount of the demand or dollars captured by existing stores. In the case of the Manchester Avenue store, for example, the retail demand is estimated at $1.9 million, but the estimated leakage is $1.4 million. In other words, 70 percent of the grocery dollars are spent outside the neighborhood. This tells Lubischer that the area has an opportunity to capture more grocery dollars. 

Landfried, the SLU dietitian, said the challenge in the city of St. Louis is not only to educate people about healthy food options, but also to encourage residents to exercise and shape up. She said the region is now in the midst of "JUMP N2 Shape," a program for which she is a consultant. The organization is pushing to meet Mayor Slay’s goal of reducing obesity by 5 percent by 2018. 

Credit St. Louis Health Department
Nelly (third from right) joined city workers and others in the kickoff for the JUMP N2 Shape fitness program last October.

City Health director Pamela Walker said the Jump N2 Shape initiative could have a powerful impact because “we are not only drawing attention to health issues, such as poor nutrition and obesity; we are equipping citizens to make small lifestyle changes that will lead to overall better health.”

The region's leaders have engaged the public on health and fitness issues as well. The mayor, St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley and East St. Louis Mayor Alvin Parks all got the public’s attention on the fitness issue by joining recording artist Nelly at the kickoff JUMP N2 Shape event last fall.  

Still, a grocery store is leaving

Although Schnucks said it gave the failing store its best, that point is disputed by Steven Patterson, whose popular blog, Urban Review STL, covers issues ranging from regional redevelopment to neighborhood amenities.

He argued that the store didn't focus on some “profitable departments,” such as salad bars, a deli, prepared food and a floral department. He said that the store hours — 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Sundays — were not convenient for customers who might want to shop before or after work.

Schnucks said in its statement that the company did make important investments, including “a $200,000 pharmacy remodel just one year ago.  Nothing we’ve done has helped improve the store’s performance.”

Credit (Steven Patterson)
Steven Patterson said the North Grand Schnucks didn't try very hard to offer a quality experience.

At the same time, Patterson wrote in his blog, that some parts of the city once regarded as food deserts are now food oases. An example, he pointed to two new stores on the south side, Fields Foods at 1500 Lafayette Avenue; and  Save-A-Lot, in the 1600 block of South Jefferson Ave., near Park Avenue.

A third supermarket that offers hope of shrinking the city’s food desert is an Aldi that popped up at 702 North Kingshighway at Delmar Boulevard. That's the same site that Schnucks had abandoned 10 years ago because it said its store there was unprofitable.

Patterson probably understands better than most the difficulties associated with not having easy access to a supermarket. After suffering a stroke about six years ago, the left side of his body was paralyzed. He can walk short distances, but uses a wheelchair for longer trips. While some activities might pose challenges for him, going to the supermarket to buy groceries is no longer among them. He happens to live near Culinaria, the downtown Schnucks grocery store. He said “that isn’t cheap, but it’s convenient.”

Meanwhile, Aaron McMullin, an AmeriCorps Vista worker involved in urban issues, said the region needs to do more to engage the public about the full scope of problems in areas like North Grand. That means doing more to address all of the problems that affect the well-being of families and individuals in low income areas.

“A lot of times you go into places with so many problems,” she said. “There are so many issues that you have to deal with ... safety issues, for example, school quality, and a host of other issues. But there is no focus on food issues. I think that needs to change.”

Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.