There’s an acre and a half of land adjacent to Sunnyside Park on the west side of Bloomington that, come summer, will transform into plots of garden-grown vegetables. Colleen Connelly, one of the garden's curators, surveys the scene.
“We’ve grown a lot of tomatoes. We’re thinking of expanding our potato and sweet potato production, different greens, collard, broccoli, really anything people want," Connelly said.
Connelly and her mother Jan Turner established the West Bloomington Active Garden about three years ago. They wanted a place where neighbors could cultivate individual plots between May and October each year. It’s one of the few ways that people in this part of city can get access to fresh produce.
“We are in a food desert over here, so what we’re trying to do is really not just giving people food but also developing tools to produce one’s own food," Connelly said on GLT's Sound Ideas.
A food desert is a part of town where residents don’t have easy access to supermarkets or other stores where they can purchase produce, fresh meat and other staples for healthy eating. Food deserts usually are located in low income and minority neighborhoods.
“These are the types of areas where we see people buying milk at gas stations and buying snacks from convenience stores instead of having the opportunity to easily access fresh produce or a larger store where they could do more shopping for their family," said Deborah Halperin, a board member of the West Bloomington Revitalization Project (WBRP). The WBPR has raised concerns about the lack of full-service supermarkets this side of the city.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture publishes a map of every zip code in America showing neighborhoods that are food deserts. West Bloomington is on that map, designated by a red square, which connotes areas where residents must travel one to 20 miles to get fresh food.
Bloomington-Normal: Low Income and Low Access
What west Bloomington does have is access to is a variety of fast food restaurants and convenience stores, as a tour of the neighborhood with Connelly of the Bloomington Active Garden shows.
“Generally we know what types of food they have. Things that are high in calories, high in sugar, high in fat, and sodium," Connelly says, driving along Market Street.
Inside a Pilot gas station that also serves as a convenience store, hot dogs and fried tostados warm on a rolling grill. Display cases full of chips, candy and other snacks line the aisles. A wall of coolers offers beer and sugary soft drinks. Tucked away in a side aisle are three small baskets of bananas and apples.
The gas station convenience store sits amid a fast food haven that includes KFC and Popeye’s fried chicken restaurants, a Taco Bell and Wendy’s.
Heading east to the Veterans Parkway shopping district, Connelly notes the food options on this side of town are quite different.
"Stores are being placed where they parallel the wealth in the community," she said. "If you want to be competitive and make money, the larger (food) chains look at where the concentration of wealth in the community is."
Within about a mile and a half along Veterans Parkway on the east side of Bloomington and in Normal, shoppers can choose from among 10 major food chains.
“You've got Target, Kroger, Walmart, Sam’s Club, Meijer, Jewel, Hyvee, Schnuck’s, Fresh Thyme, Fresh Market," Connelly says, listing the names of the major chains we pass in this part of town. "I’m up to 10.”
These supermarkets aren’t particularly close to residential neighborhoods. But there is a difference Connelly points out.
“The houses are kind of sectioned off from the grocery stores, but the difference is that most of the houses here have access to cars, have access to vehicles, so you don’t have to rely on the public transportation system or getting a ride from someone else. Most of the houses here have, if not one, then multiple vehicles at their disposal.”
What Grocers Say
It doesn’t appear likely that any large supermarket chain will move into west Bloomington any time soon. Eric Halvorson is a spokesman for Cincinnati-based Kroger, which has three stores in Bloomington-Normal.
“In the long-term, to invest in an area, we need to be confident we will see a return in the investment and even anticipate growth in our business once it’s there," he said in an interview from Kroger's regional office in Indianapolis.
Kroger recently closed two stores in central Peoria it said were not profitable, and says it currently has no plans to open a new store in Bloomington. A decision to move its College Avenue store to a different location, but still on the east side, has been put on hold.
Kroger does have a store on Main Street in Bloomington, closer to the underserved area, but that store is two miles from the west side's Old Towne neighborhood and three miles for the Sunnyside section where the Active Garden is.
Halvorson said the Kroger on Main Street, which sits in a mixed income area, is not as profitable as the stores it operates in other parts of Bloomington-Normal. The Main Street store doesn't have a butcher department or fresh seafood department, a gourmet cheese section or a full-service bakery, as the east-side College Avenue store does.
“That takes us back to the idea of the data and research that goes into determining where a store can be most successful," Halverson said.
"You look at the population studies, you look at the demographics to get a sense of available food dollars in a certain area."
Filling the Gaps
A few grassroots organizations have stepped in to help provide west Bloomington residents with fresh produce on a regular basis—free of charge.
One of those programs is the Veggie Oasis. On Saturday mornings, residents can find an array of lettuce, potatoes and beans laid out on folding tables in front of the WBRP offices on West Washington Street.
"One way we can make fresh produce more accessible is by bringing it to the communities that need it," said Halperin of the WBPR board.
“Some of this is a convenience issue. If there is fresh produce near you, and you can easily access it you are more likely to go get it and eat it, and that is what we want."
Veggie Oasis depends on receiving donations from the Bloomington-Normal Farmers Market. When the outdoor market finishes up on Saturdays, Veggie Oasis volunteers go from table to table, gleaning whatever produce, herbs, even bread or pasta that farmers market merchants have not been able to sell.
“We catch the farmers between their last sale of the day and when they are packing up to go home and we say, 'Hey if there is anything you aren’t taking back to the farm today, would you like to donate anything to our project?' And we gather up that food, and it is a substantial amount of food. Our farmers are very generous. We couldn’t do it without them," Halperin said.
The number of people who come to the Veggie Oasis seeking free food has grown steadily in recent years, Halperin said.
“We can see 40 to 50 people on a weekend, each representing a different family, so the food that is on that table ends up feeding quite a lot of folks," she said.
One of the regulars is Altheria Betts. She was passing by one day and saw the Veggie Oasis sign.
“I asked people and they told me I could get free vegetables that could help me with my diet," Betts recalled.
Betts says she is trying to eat healthy to avoid some of the problems that have affected other members of her family. “Stroke, cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure, all of that," she said.
The nearest full-service grocery store to Betts’ neighborhood is the west side Walmart on Market Street. But it is off of Interstate 55, about two miles from the residential neighborhoods of west Bloomington.
Betts says she has a car, but many of her neighbors don’t. They have to take buses to shop at the supermarket.
“It is kind of inconvenient because you got to wait for the bus, it might be raining one day, you got carry the food on the bus, and what if you don’t have any help?” she said.
A major characteristic of food deserts is poor access to transportation.
“Another challenge for low-income families is they don’t have a car," Halperin said. "So they rely on a bus. Maybe the bus comes once an hour, so between your two jobs and getting your kids to school and all the other things a family has to do, it’s another thing you have to schedule in, how to get to the grocery store and back.”
Beacon of Hope
The Veggie Oasis only operates part of the year. It follows the growing season from early summer to the end of October when the outdoor farmers market finishes up. It is then that another grassroots program kicks in, also run by volunteers.
"Beacon of Hope is a nonprofit organization seeking to eliminate food waste and give back to the community," said volunteer Joellen Scott.
On weekends, Scott and fellow Beacon of Hope volunteer Gary Calhoon make the rounds of local supermarkets.
Calhoon drives to the stores’ loading docks in a truck from his architectural metals business. He then packs up the produce the supermarkets no longer want to sell, as well as other foods, like bread, milk, soup and yogurt, that are slightly past their sell-by date.
Scott said Beacon of Hope is on a food rescue mission.
“We’re bringing in anywhere from five to 30 boxes of food. We never know from week to week what we might get," she said, packing some cartons of apples into the back of Calhoon's truck.
"It is just amazing to see what would have gone into the dumpster ... So this apple here has a bruise on it and (the store) would have had to throw out the whole bag of apples, but I can go home and cut around it and still use it," she said.
The fruits and other foods Beacon of Hope collects eventually ends up on folding tables outside the West Bloomington Revitalization Project's offices where people can come and go to collect what they need.
Armando Baez of the WBRP oversees Beacon of Hope's twice-weekly food giveaways.
“Every Thursday and Saturday we have usually three tables of food and there is nothing left over, so to my mind that says there is a need in this food desert on the west side of town," Baez said.
Sometimes the offerings are a bit exotic, like the oat milk and shiitake mushrooms on offer this particular Saturday. But the people who come like, one Hispanic man who declined to give his name, say those who come for the free food appreciate whatever they can get.
“It’s a way of survival I guess," the man said.
Green Top Grocery Arrives
There is one supermarket that sits close to the residential homes of west Bloomington. Green Top Grocery opened less than a year ago. Green Top’s planners stressed that its location would shrink the size of west Bloomington’s food desert.
However, Green Top isn’t your usual grocery store. It is a co-operative, funded in part by the $200 ownerships its customers can buy. (You don't have to be an owner to shop there.)
It is more of a boutique grocery than a full-service market. There, you can find sesame seaweed salad, oat milk, sparkling grapefruit wine as well as organically grown produce and locally-baked breads that are typically more expensive than supermarket brands.
Many of the people who seek free food at the west Bloomington Veggie Oasis or through Beacon of Hope say they haven't heard of Green Top, or that they can't afford its prices.
A gallon of milk there sells for $3.49, a dollar or more than the prices at some full-service supermarkets. Green Top features locally-made breads. A loaf of rye costs $6. A loaf of Paesano bread is $5.50.
“Our prices are a little higher than a conventional store, but part of that is because of our size and what we can order," said Rainie Themer, Green Top's marketing manager.
Themer said the store recently lowered prices on about 400 items, many of them basics. Purple signs now adorn many shelves, announcing special sales on certain staples, like cereals. Green tags in the produce section announce fruits and vegetables on sale.
“The purple signs you see in our store, those are for basic items that we sell at cost of below cost. They will be more of your grains, vegetables, milk, eggs, items that everybody needs," Themer said.
Several times a month, Green Top donates food it can no longer sell to Beacon of Hope to give away. One recent Saturday, its donations included a box of organic apples, several bags of specialty breads, containers of soup, cartons of half and half and milk.
Themer said the store is trying to reach the under-served in other ways. Green Top has a "teaching kitchen" that offers cooking classes, many of them free. Themer said the store hopes to reach more of its low income neighbors through these free classes.
“You can give somebody produce, but if they don’t know how to cook, you’re not really giving them access. So we offer two to three cooking classes in our teaching kitchen per month. Some of these are fee classes, but most are free," she said.
Still, Themer acknowledges that most of the people who currently show up for Green Top's cooking classes don't come from disadvantaged neighborhoods.
Green Top also has begun a program for people who receive federal food assistance. The store will match whatever amount those customers spend on fresh produce with a coupon of equal value to purchase additional produce, either at Green Top or the farmers market.
Green Top also is trying to get approval from the government for its customers to use Illinois Women Infants and Children (WIC) food benefits to buy such items as milk and baby food at the store.
Volunteers working to bring healthier food to the struggling families of west Bloomington say all of their efforts combined amount only to a stop-gap measure. The Veggie Oasis and Beacon of Hope food giveaways —as well as Colleen Connolly's Active Garden—might serve only a few hundred people at best.
Armando Baez of the WBRP said the west side needs a long-term solution.
“There has to be some source of food or grocery store or something for residents especially who don’t have transportation. There has to be something on the west side. So part of our role and other volunteers’ role to be active because I don’t see a store being built. So for now this is our solution."
Halperin of the WBRP board said some communities are experimenting with different approaches to address the food crisis in neighborhoods.
“There is a project where there is a partnership between grocery stores and gas stations where maybe they can offer more than milk and cheese sticks. Maybe there is a way there can be a combo grocery store-gas station (where) if you have to get gas on your way home, could you also pop in and pick up a rotisserie chicken?" she said.
"If we wait for solutions we are going to be as stuck as we are now," Halperin added. "So we should be looking at ways other communities are responding to these challenges, because our families need this now.”
Finding a better solution, she acknowledged, will take creativity, long-term planning, political will, and the possible intervention of local government to offer enticements to grocery chains to move into this under-served part of the community.
You can also listen to GLT's full story:
Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect the $200 ownership cost at Green Top Grocery.
Go Deeper: Read the Disparities in Access report that analyzed race and ethnicity in Bloomington-Normal and how those factors are geographically associated with food deserts and other issues. The report was produced by Illinois State University's Stevenson Center for Community and Economic Development and the Department of Sociology and Anthropology. It was sponsored by the Pohlmann Family Development Grants.
Coming Tuesday and Wednesday: A closer look at Green Top Grocery's efforts to reach underserved parts of the Bloomington-Normal community, and more of GLT's discussion with Deborah Halperin from the West Bloomington Revitalization Project.
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