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New Orleans ‘food deserts’ — a solution? 

A chain of small supermarkets may be able to fill some of the gap with inexpensive staples

click to enlarge Customers outside Save A Lot on Almonaster Avenue.

Photo by Cheryl Gerber

Customers outside Save A Lot on Almonaster Avenue.

Food deserts are defined as urban neighborhoods and rural towns without ready access to fresh, healthy and affordable food. Instead of supermarkets and grocery stores, these communities may have no food access or are served only by fast food restaurants and convenience stores that offer few healthy, affordable food options. The lack of access contributes to a poor diet and can lead to higher levels of obesity and other diet-related diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease. — U.S. Department of Agriculture

St. Roch resident David Roe says he lives in a food desert. But the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) says that's not the case. The nearest food desert to the corner of St. Roch and St. Claude avenues, site of the recently opened St. Roch Market, starts just northeast of the census tract — pretty much at the front door of the Save A Lot grocery store on Almonaster Avenue, north of North Claiborne Avenue.

  Whether an area is considered a food desert is determined by how many low-income residents live in each census tract, how many cars they own and the location of the nearest grocery store from the center of each tract. The last USDA map of food deserts was compiled from 2010 census data.

  "We hope it is close to the truth," says Shelly Ver Ploeg, an economist at the USDA. "We are in the process of updating the map for 2015."

  Ver Ploeg says she has no data before 2010, but that the New Orleans Healing Center's Food Co-Op, which opened in 2009, may have eliminated the "food desert" designation from the area, even though prices are higher than in standard supermarkets. According to the USDA's map, Save A Lot doesn't help the St. Roch neighborhood, nor does it count toward the census tract where it is located.

  "Our map doesn't take the cost of the food into account," Van Ploeg says, explaining that the area around that Save A Lot remains a food desert because the store sits more than 1 mile away from the center of its census tract.

  The St. Roch Market — with its many prepared foods and chic displays — has been a controversial development in a neighborhood underserved by traditional supermarkets. But those who complain that the new St. Roch Market is not a grocery store, or that the New Orleans Food Co-Op across the street in the New Orleans Healing Center is too expensive, need travel only another six-tenths of a mile to the Almonaster Save A Lot, or 1 mile west to the smaller but locally owned Circle Food Store on North Claiborne and St. Bernard avenues.

Founded in Missouri in 1977, Save A Lot now has 1,300 stores in 36 states. It opened on Almonaster Avenue in March 2009, replacing a flooded Winn-Dixie. Two other Save A Lots also opened that day on Claiborne Avenue and MacArthur Boulevard on the West Bank, all of them in existing buildings.

  "We've prided ourselves on redevelopment in these communities, and part of that is going back into previously blighted or pre-existing structures," says Chon Tomlin, a spokesman for Save A Lot corporation.

  The chain keeps prices low by employing only a couple dozen workers per store and cross-training each to perform more than one role. Plastic bags are provided upon request for 3 to 10 cents (boxes are free).

  "We also don't have departments, except meat, and so we can drive cost down with a smaller footprint size — one-third the size of a traditional grocery store," Tomlin says. "It's much harder to drop a huge, brand-new grocery smack dab in the middle of any community, so we've streamlined our stores to be between 15,000 and 16,000 square feet on average."

  Tim Penot, manager of the Save A Lot on Almonaster, says he grew up eating New Orleans food and has regionalized his store to meet the needs of residents who've lived in the area the longest. "I made sure we got Camellia's red beans, [Tony Chachere's] seasoning, even the Guidry's mix for gumbo and things," Penot says while walking through the store, pointing to hand-picked products. "Patton's hot sausage, Double D sausage, Savoie's sausage, Richard's sausage, Manda sausage — that speaks volumes to people. They come in on Mondays and ransack that section." Among the other items he's introduced are soy milk, almond milk and Zapp's chips.

  Tomlin says 75 to 80 percent of Save A Lot's food is off-brand or "private label." The store cuts its own meat, and the meat section is three times the size it was in 2012. "Before we were on a pre-packaged meat program similar to what you're gonna see in Wal-Mart," he says. Save A Lot on Almonaster has frozen fish, but isn't set up to sell fresh seafood.

  Penot had no local produce on hand when Gambit visited, but said, "We've had local strawberries, local tomatoes and some local onions. People don't really ask me for the local, per se. What we've done instead is expanded to give several types of tomatoes, several types of apples and oranges. ... But the produce is a hard one because we really try to keep our price down."

  Quality also is a preconception, Penot says. Asked if Save A Lot's "off-brands" contain less healthy or substandard ingredients, Penot says no. "People make this food for us, but it's cheaper because we don't have the fancy labels," he says, adding that name-brand suppliers often create off-brand products "so they have something cheaper to sell us."

  Comparing Save-A-Lot's original brand foods with Rouses's Best Choice and other budget brands uncovered some small but interesting differences. Save-A-Lot's Del Pino's brand canned ravioli costs 69 cents. Rouse's brand costs 26 cents more with almost identical ingredients. Save-A-Lot's Wylwood cut green beans cost 49 cents and have 10 milligrams of sodium, while Libby's brand at Rouses's cost 79 cents and contains 290 milligrams of sodium. Save-A-Lot's cheapest granola bars ($1.99) had 1 milligram less fat and 10 milligrams less sodium than Rouses' brand ($2.39), and 1 gram less sugar. Save-a-Lot's So Cheesy brand mac-and-cheese (39 cents) boasts a couple extra yellow dyes, a little more sodium, a little less fat and three whole grams less sugar than the Best Choice version (50 cents). Both contain thiamin mononitrate, though only Rouse's brand spells it correctly.

  In the end, the shopper's budget will dictate the quality of food he or she takes home, regardless of which chain grocery they choose.

  "I love that the term 'food desert' exists now, because then you can talk about it without having to explain the nuance. But we were doing it before it was popular," Tomlin says, adding, "We are very proud that our average customer lives within 2 or 3 miles of our stores."

  Though the St. Roch neighborhood still feels like a food desert to David Roe, he gives Save A Lot some credit. "It's not a real grocery store, but it has made some attempts," he says. "Sometimes it seems kind of dented and busted and that kind of thing. But they do have Fruity Pebbles, they do have granola."

  Patricia Fishem, who lives a few blocks from St. Roch Market, shops at Save A Lot two or three times per week. "When I am in here, I usually find everything I need unless it's one of those certain things they don't carry — like my pound cake," she says, laughing. "And I like Breyers ice cream."

  Though Fishem shops at Save A Lot for her staples, she also shops at St. Roch Market. "I love it." she says. "They have this special banana cake, or loaf, that is positively divine. So I go there as often as I can." She doesn't use St. Roch Market as her main grocery, though, and won't consider Wal-Mart. "The produce is better at Save A Lot," she says.

  St. Roch area residents may have to shop more than one place to get what they need, but Roe says that is just a reminder of New Orleans' past: "You always had to go to [the] French Market, and then to Terranova's for sausage, and then Mona's for Middle Eastern supplies," he says. "That was one of the joys of New Orleans, that you had to go multiple places to make groceries."

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