Together, the Tenderloin Healthy Corner Store Coalition, Healthy Southeast and HealthyRetailSF Are Bringing Fresh Produce and Smart Choices to All the City’s Neighborhoods
Despite San Francisco’s relative prosperity and reputation for healthful living, there are actually several “food deserts and food swamps” in the City’s low income neighborhoods. In these areas, a lack of grocery stores and supermarkets limits access to healthy food.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture officially identifies Bayview Hunters Point and Visitacion Valley as food deserts. In The Bayview, about 40,000 residents have to travel miles to the nearest grocery store. The Tenderloin is viewed as a “food swamp.” Although it’s a more compact urban area, within its 50 square blocks there are more than 70 corner stores – with an abundance of processed foods high in fat and sugar, as well as alcohol and tobacco – and no full-service grocery store.
In 2007, a group of local residents in The Bayview got together to improve food access in their neighborhoods. This collaborative group of residents, community-based organizations, city agencies, and others became the Southeast Food Access Working Group (SEFA), part of Shape Up San Francisco.
Taking inspiration from SEFA (recently renamed Healthy Southeast), a group of organizations and residents in the Tenderloin, led by the Vietnamese Youth Development Center, formed the Tenderloin Healthy Corner Store Coalition (TLHCSC) through a community convening in 2012.
Both groups are partners with the HealthyRetailSF program, which is funded and staffed by the San Francisco Department of Public Health (DPH) and Office of Economic and Workforce Development (OEWD). Healthy Southeast is also staffed by DPH with volunteer co-chairs, and DPH helped convene stakeholders in the Tenderloin, providing the catalyst for TLHCSC to come together.
“Together, Healthy Southeast and TLHCSC have put food access on the political and community agenda in San Francisco,” said Shally Iyer, Metta Fund’s Director of Programs. “With support from Metta Fund, as well as the City and other foundations, they’re changing the food landscape in our neighborhoods.”
Through the HealthyRetailSF partnership, Healthy Southeast and TLHCSC have shepherded the conversion of nine corner stores across San Francisco to places where residents can buy a variety healthy foods: three stores in The Bayview, five in the Tenderloin, and one in Oceanview. Converting a corner store entails a physical redesign where retailers are supported to makeover their stores by adding produce bins and refrigerators; and to remove or move tobacco and alcohol advertisements to less visible locations.
Gaining Access to Healthy Food is Essential
Metta Fund has supported Healthy Southeast and TLHCSC since 2014, because we share their vision of a healthier San Francisco for all and their commitment to making systemic change to achieve that goal. We also see the work of these neighborhood groups as critical for ending health inequities in San Francisco.
“Promoting healthy eating and physical activity is a key focus area of our grantmaking, because of its long-term influence on conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, and cancer,” said Iyer. “We also recognize that many of the health disparities in San Francisco follow neighborhood lines. They’re reinforced by unequal access to resources like parks, gardens and grocery stores.”
In food deserts and food swamps such as The Bayview or the Tenderloin, making healthy choices is harder than in more affluent neighborhoods. Food products are more expensive, and residents often resort to fast food or other cheap meals that are high in fat, sugar, and sodium. Both neighborhoods have higher rates of diabetes and other chronic diseases associated with food insecurity and poor diet than San Francisco as a whole.
“Neighborhood groups like Healthy Southeastand TLHCSC are uniquely positioned to work at the local level to support residents’ well-being and help make healthy choices easy and affordable,” said Iyer.
A Three-Legged Stool
When Healthy Southeast and TLHCSC each formed, they started by conducting surveys of hundreds of residents in their neighborhoods. The surveys revealed two important facts.
“Our first survey in 2012, of 640 residents in the Tenderloin showed the demand for healthy food was there. People wanted better choices,” said Ryan Thayer, co-coordinator of TLHCSC. “It also showed residents were going outside the neighborhood to make food purchases.”
Every year, $11 million was leaving the Tenderloin in grocery sales alone. An earlier survey by SEFA revealed $38 million in retail sales lost by neighborhood stores in The Bayview, as leakage to full-service grocery stores miles away. This data helped the neighborhood groups make the case to local merchants that selling healthy food could be profitable.
“Our goal is to work with local merchants to cultivate positive relationships,” said Thayer, “not to be a burden. We see corner stores as playing a central role in strengthening the local community.”
In their work to improve food access, Healthy Southeast and TLHCSC apply the HealthyRetailSF model, which is like a three-legged stool:
- The first leg is physical store redesign. Retailers receive city funding from HealthyRetailSF to makeover their stores by adding produce bins, wire shelves, and refrigerators; removing some tobacco and alcohol advertisements; and committing to sell healthy products for three years. Stores receive expert, pro bono, advice from Burlingame-based Sutti Associates, a grocery retail design firm.
- The second leg, also funded through HealthyRetailSF, is technical assistance with business operations, including best practices for keeping produce fresh and sourcing healthy products. Stores also get help using point of sale (POS) systems to track sales of the new food products. Retailers agree to uphold a set of standards developed by Healthy Southeast and TLHCSC.
- The third leg is community engagement: All the work of building relationships with neighborhood retailers is done by paid community food advocates. These are residents who live in the neighborhood, and receive professional training on food access and equity issues, as well as business principles and marketing. They reach out to retailers about committing to a store redesign, constantly check in on their progress, and monitor adherence to the agreed-upon standards.
“That’s how you achieve meaningful, impactful change,” said Thayer, “with the most affected people on the ground making decisions.”
Community Food Advocates
Empowering resident leaders to advocate for food justice in the communities where they live is the cornerstone of TLHCSC’s and Healthy Southeast’s work.
These residents apply for a professional, part-time role with the coalition in their neighborhood. In the Tenderloin, TLHCSC has seven Food Justice Leaders. In The Bayview, Healthy Southeast has three Food Guardians. Food Justice Leaders and Food Guardians increase the capacity of TLHCSC and Healthy Southeast, and serve as liaisons between the broader community, merchants, and city officials.
“We had this idea of training and paying community residents to do this work, as Food Guardians, two hours a week,” said Christina Goette, senior health program planner at DPH, who serves as Healthy Southeast and the Shape Up SF Coalition staff.
“For merchants in the neighborhood, community food advocates are their customers, someone they know,” said Iyer. “They can guide merchants through the City bureaucracy to apply for store conversion funding.”
While DPH and OEWD have funded the physical improvements to stores, technical assistance with business operations, and some community engagement, the City funding doesn’t pay for everything the neighborhood groups do. Much of that support comes from Metta Fund. “The first and second legs of the stool are funded by the City,” said Goette, “but it was Metta Fund, and other funders, who made the critical community engagement piece happen.”
In addition to reaching out to retailers and conducting assessments of stores that have committed to a redesign, community food advocates also serve as peer-educators to the communities in which they live. They educate their peers in issues of food justice and build demand for healthier options in their neighborhoods.
Community food advocates host grand re-openings for stores when their conversions are complete. They
help with branding and marketing, as well as plan promotional events such as cooking demonstrations. In The Bayview, food advocates have painted murals and planted community gardens. In the Tenderloin, advocates partnered with the AIMS Project, a program of Asian & Pacific Islander Wellness Center, to host taste tests.
“We wanted to hire Food Guardians from within the neighborhood,” said Goette. “We really wanted the retail residents to have the relationships with merchants, to hold them accountable. They’re more likely to get a response when they walk into a store.”
Making It a Movement
While store conversions have garnered headlines, TLHCSC and Healthy Southeast’ss advocacy work goes far beyond outreach to individual stores. It was their combined efforts that led San Francisco to establish the Healthy Food Retailer Incentives Program in 2013. Modeled after the neighborhood groups’ work, Supervisor Eric Mar introduced an ordinance to define standards for healthy retail, set parameters for store evaluation and incentive agreements, solidify the funding, and establish an advisory committee for oversight.
“If our two groups weren’t working together, we wouldn’t have an ordinance,” said Jessica Estrada, community engagement coordinator for HealthyRetailSF at DPH. “We wouldn’t be where we are today without the knowledge sharing and training that’s gone back and forth.”
TLHCSC and Healthy Southeast also host annual gatherings in their neighborhoods. They’ve established a close partnership with the Arab American Grocers Association and other business groups. Recently, they’ve published healthy shopping guides and translated them into Spanish, Chinese, Arabic, and Vietnamese.
“Metta Fund makes all those activities possible,” said Thayer, noting that Metta Fund’s capacity-building grants support the groups’ staff in expanding their programs. “Community organizing requires strong leadership and it’s a very labor-intensive process. Without Metta Fund, we’d have the work of two full-time people, but only one staff person and no training for community food advocates. And without the staff and trained residents to lead these efforts, our work would be diluted.”
As Thayer explained, Metta Fund’s support has enabled TLHCSC and Healthy Southeast to take their community engagement work and develop it into the HealthyRetailSF model for expanding into other neighborhoods. The two groups participate in a larger, Bay Area-wide healthy corner store convening group, an alliance that Thayer says “has been essential to our success.”
“We’re eager to expand into other neighborhoods, to see how this partnership would work as a sustainable coalition,” said Goette. “If residents wanted to do a store conversion in Visitacion Valley, for example, how could we support that?”
Part of a store redesign – the second leg of the stool – involves helping stores use POS systems to track sales of new products. When the stores share their POS data, TLHCSC, Healthy Southeast, and HealthyRetailSF are able to highlight the demand for fresh produce and the increase in total sales with hard numbers – and food leaders can make the case for more retailers to sign up.
“We’re trying to institutionalize this food advocacy work,” said Thayer, “make sure each component is well-supported, and turn it into a comprehensive program.”