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What It Might Take To Remake West Bloomington's Food Desert

Judith Valente
Deborah Halperin, a board member of the West Bloomington Revitalization Project, sorts food donations from Green Top Grocery outside WBRP office on West Washington Street.

GLT is reporting this week on why west Bloomington is a food desert and how different community organizations are working to fill the gap. This is part three in the series.

For many west Bloomington families, putting food on the table isn’t a necessity. Too often it’s a choice.

That’s according to Deborah Halperin, who oversees the Saturday Veggie Oasis free food giveaways, a program of the West Bloomington Revitalization Project (WBRP).

“I can’t believe in a community of plenty, we have families struggling with hunger,” Halperin said on GLT’s Sound Ideas.

Halperin said many west-side families are forced to grocery shop at convenience stores that charge higher prices for many staples, such as milk and bread, taking a large chunk out of their overall food budget. The area does not have a full-service supermarket close to residential neighborhoods.

Many families are faced with the question, “After I pay my rent and I pay my bills, how much money do I have left for my family to eat,” Halperin said.

"We have to be creative in coming up with some of those ideas."

“If my kids eat at school for breakfast and maybe lunch, can I cover dinner? Can I get to a food pantry? …Juggling that food budget is an ongoing battle for the families we work with.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has identified west Bloomington as a food desert: a place where residents don’t have easy access to fresh, healthy food. WBRP's Veggie Oasis is a volunteer effort to address the problem. Veggie Oasis gives away free produce and other fresh foods donated by supermarkets and the Bloomington-Normal Farmers Market.

Halperin, who sits on the WBRP board, said the number of people who show up for free food has been steadily growing. The Veggie Oasis takes place Saturdays in front of the WBRP office on West Washington Street.

She described the people who come to the Veggie Oasis as the “working poor."

“They are working one job, one and a half jobs, and two jobs with all the people in the household pitching in to get the income to cover the bills,” Halperin said.

Not having a full-service supermarket near the west side’s residential neighborhoods is a particular hardship for families who don’t have a car, she said.

“Some people think just because you don’t live next door to a grocery store, there are grocery stores all over. You can drive to a store of your choice. But another issue for low-income families is that they don’t have a car. They have to rely on a bus."

“Low-income families we work with are thinking about dinner in an entirely different way than families with money and access to cars,” she added.

Halperin said many families end up buying meals at one of the west side’s many fast food restaurants because they are accessible and the food is often cheaper there.

“If you can’t get to a grocery store to make better food selections, it exacerbates ongoing health trouble we see in families,” she said.

“You think, oh wow, in a cheap value meal, I can get five things for less money. I can’t blame people for being tempted by that.”

Halperin said many families shop at the west side Walmart or Aldi but the location of those two stores off Interstate 55 makes getting to them without a car difficult, though there is bus service.  

West-side residents have been asking for a full-service supermarket closer to the residential neighborhoods for years.

“That is what our residents tell us they want the most,” Halperin said. “When we ask, what would make your neighborhood a better place, they say we would really love to have a more convenient grocery store.”

Barriers To New Grocers

Halperin said there are significant challenges to getting a large supermarket chain to move into the area.

“To have a successful grocery store, you need to have enough people that are able to shop there and spend enough money, because the margin of profit in a grocery store is very small,” Halperin said.

“By the demographics alone, you know people (on the west side) don’t have a lot of money to spend.”

Another challenge is finding a suitable site.

“Finding a property you could make available with the footprint you need for grocery store,” Halperin said.

Many chains want a large tract for the store, another tract for parking and access to a high traffic street.

“This is an old part of town,” Halperin said. “It’s a tough grid to put something in with a big footprint.”

She said the presence of the Green Top Grocery cooperative, which opened a year ago, is a help.

Green Top recently lowered prices on 400 items, including many staples, like milk and cereal. It now runs weekly sales on organic produce, and offers coupons in matching amounts for customers who by produce at the store using their government food benefits. Green Top says it is trying other strategies, including free cooking and wellness classes, to attract a more diverse customer base to the store.

Green Top is funded in part by ownerships customers can buy for $200. Green Top also has a fund to help lower-income residents become owners without paying the full $200 fee.

“They are new to the community and really working hard to be more accessible,” Halperin said. “I shop there. I am an owner, but I don’t do all my shopping there.”

Anyone can shop at Green Top, regardless of ownership.

The store’s size and focus on organic, cage-free and locally baked goods differentiates it from a full-service food store, like a Kroger or Walmart.

Halperin said if no large supermarket chain moves into the west side any time soon, city officials should look for creative approaches to making fresh good more accessible to area residents.

“Until we have more long-term solutions to food deserts, maybe we can look at other communities and the ways they have been successful in making sure families living in food deserts have greater access to fresh produce,” Halperin said.

“Maybe it’s cooking classes or meal delivery programs or community-supported agriculture programs. Maybe while we are waiting to move up the priority list, there are other things we can do. We have to be creative in coming up with some of those ideas.”

You can also listen to GLT's full story:

GLT's full interview with Halperin.

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