As chain supermarkets have been abandoning inner cities to build in suburbs where land is both more plentiful and less expensive, many low-income urban areas have lost access to full-service grocery stores and their stock of fresh produce, meats and dairy products. As a result, residents develop “poor food habits” and face higher prices for groceries, according to a 2005 study by Wayne State University in Detroit. In response, some city leaders are initiating financial incentive programs to lure supermarkets back to low-income urban neighborhoods, and non-profits are using alternative methods to close the “grocery gap.”

In April, the Troy, N.Y.-based non-profit Capital District Community Gardens (CDCG), which serves New York's Albany, Schenectady and Rensselaer counties, launched the Veggie Mobile, a refrigerated truck stocked with fresh produce that makes year-round scheduled stops in low-income neighborhoods. Funded by a $500,000 grant from the New York State Department of Health, CDCG staff members on the Veggie Mobile sell locally grown fruits and vegetables at wholesale prices and accept food stamps. “The Veggie Mobile helps fill the gap and gives people a way to still get their fresh foods,” CDCG Executive Director Amy Klein says. The market economy and fear of theft impede efforts to lure supermarkets to the area, she says.

The Veggie Mobile meets an important need for the Schenectady Municipal Housing Authority, which manages more than 400 apartments for senior and disabled residents in three complexes with no nearby grocery store, says the authority's Service Coordinator Margaret Hunter. “Residents are able to stretch their food budget for the month and eat healthier,” she says.

In 2004, Pennsylvania legislators passed the $30 million Fresh Food Financing Initiative (FFFI), a public/private partnership that finances supermarket construction where they may not otherwise locate. FFFI was developed in part from recommendations from the Food Marketing Task Force, a collaboration of 40 public, civic and supermarket industry experts, created in 2001 by Philadelphia officials and locally based non-profit The Food Trust, says the trust's Communications Director David Adler.

The Food Trust helps administer FFFI. “We found we can tip the market [in favor of supermarket construction] by developing a streamlined process, favorable zoning incentives, and prioritized economic development that includes food retail,” Adler says. FFFI has financed 50 projects in low- and moderate-income neighborhoods across the state, including 18 in Philadelphia.

The Hartford, Conn., Food System is a non-profit that works to make nutritional food accessible to all residents. The city offers retailers incentives to encourage cooperation with the agency, such as access to the same wholesalers that supply food to the city's schools. However, Food System Executive Director Jerry Jones says city officials around the country need to do more. “Mayors and other public officials need to see supermarkets as part of their role,” Jones says. “It's not just affordable housing and economic development that make a community thrive. Right now, [supermarkets] are just not on their radar screen.”

Annie Gentile is a Vernon, Conn.-based freelance writer.