Grocer Coming to S.F. Neighborhood Aims to Be Oasis in Food Desert

Kenneth Hill, who lives in San Francisco's Bayview neighborhood, stands outside his office, near the location of the new grocery store. (Alex Emslie/KQED)

Kenneth Hill, who lives in San Francisco’s Bayview neighborhood, stands outside his office, near the location of the new grocery store. (Alex Emslie/KQED)

By Alex Emslie
KQED

Several patches in and around San Francisco’s Bayview neighborhood are splotched green on a map produced by the federal government’s Department of Agriculture. These areas are labeled “food deserts” — which the government defines as low-income neighborhoods with limited access to “fresh healthy affordable food.”

Lifelong Bayview resident Kenneth Hill says the term “food swamp” might be more appropriate.

“It’s swamped with food,” he says, “but it’s not swamped with the nutritious food that we need to live.”

The Bayview had a grocery store selling nutritious food, but the store, Fresh and Easy, closed more than 18 months ago after its corporate owner shut down many of its West Coast locations.

The closure troubled community advocates like Hill, who works for Bayview HEAL Zone. HEAL stands for “healthy eating and active living.” Not surprisingly, Hill is all for a grocery store selling fresh produce, especially in an area with a diabetes hospitalization rate nearly triple the rest of San Francisco.

San Francisco Supervisor Malia Cohen, who represents the area, has been working to find a grocery store to move into the Fresh and Easy space. “Every other part of San Francisco has a grocery store,” she says. “Why not this community?”

She says she reached out to 120 stores, hoping to find one to move into the established space, so that neighbors would have access to healthy food.

“None of these grocers had the vision to see the potential and the opportunity that lies in the neighborhood,” she says.

Employee at the Duc Loi Mission District store stocking produce on shelves.

Employee at the Duc Loi Mission District store stocking produce on shelves.

After both a grant from the city and a much larger business loan, Howard Ngo, the owner of local store Duc Loi, agreed to expand there.

“They encouraged me first, then they came after with help,” Ngo says, in reference to the grant and loan he received. “The city offered me $250,000 to pay for equipment. That’s a big help.”

And to Kenneth Hill, that’s meaningful, especially in an area with a large low-income population and a high crime rate.

“For this company to take a risk and come into the Bayview community, I think is tremendous,” he says.

Aniete Ekanem, who lives upstairs from the store’s Third Street location, said having a grocery store in the neighborhood was “not only moral and ethical” but also an economic opportunity.

“If we can make the economics work, as the city is trying to help us do, then businesses will come. It’s just not going to be the Trader Joes … or the ‘Whole Paychecks’ of the world,” she said, referring to a common nickname for Whole Foods. “And that’s actually fine.”

Some residents have reservations. Maya Rogers, who is also with the Bayview HEAL Zone, is a  lifelong Bayview resident. She said she worries because Duc Loi is not a “general” grocery store.

“It caters to the Asian community, which we have lots of Asian culture here in the Bayview, but I’m scared that will keep people from shopping there,” she says. “I’m hoping that they are open to a conversation with the community. … I wish them success because that sets the precedent for the next store.”

The city is fast-tracking permits, and Duc Loi’s grand opening is scheduled for March.

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