“Mr. Hernandez!” she calls ebulliently to the elderly man with a boom box. “How are you doin today?”
Graham seems to know every single person passing by, and the pedestrians stop to chat before she ushers them into the trailer.
Rolling Grocer 19, still in its inaugural month, hopes to bring healthy, affordable food to Hudson, a city with a poverty rate of 25 percent and no affordable grocery store.
Once Graham has coaxed passers-by into the trailer, they are met with what looks like the world’s healthiest mini-mart. Fresh produce, including plantains, avocados and tomatoes stock the shelves along with staples like flour, corn grits and olive oil. A cooler houses cuts of meat, and paper towels and toilet paper sit on a shelf at head level.
Other than the preponderance of nourishing goods and its mobility (they stop at a different spot every day), Rolling Grocer 19 differs from the average mini-mart by its pricing. Each produce has three color-coded prices below it, going from least expensive to most.
Audrey Berman, the project manager of Rolling Grocer 19, described it as their “fair pricing system.”
“The way to figure out where you fall is [to] select the number of people in your household and the combined household income, and then that would correlate with a color, which is then associated with a set of prices,” she said.
For instance, a person making under $25,000 a year would pay 70 cents for a yam. A person making between $25,000 and $40,000 would pay $1 for the same yam, and someone making above $40,000 would pay $1.30.
Once someone has figured out their color, they are entered into Rolling Grocer’s system, and are free to come by any time to shop. No paperwork proving income is required.
“The idea is, we have people from all financial situations shopping here,” Berman said. “So people on the high end are subsidizing the low end.”
The low-end prices are about what the products go for at wholesale, and the high-end prices are about what the products fetch in retail markets, she added.
Rolling Grocer 19 is a non-profit and relies on fundraising for things like salaries and generator fuel, while the products, which are from local farms and a wholesale distributor, pay for themselves through the pricing system.
Eighty percent of the products are organic, Berman said, and the market was considering carrying ethnic food for Hudson’s substantial Bengali population, but was weary of taking business away from corner stores catering to them.
The reason for Rolling Grocer 19?
“Accessibility to food both in terms of transportation and cost,” Berman said.
Hudson’s Food Desert
“Food Deserts” are areas where healthy food, such as fresh produce, is not available. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) specifically defines a food desert as a low-income urban census tract more than a mile away from a supermarket.
This puts Hudson’s low-income areas well within a food desert, since the city does not have a single supermarket. The closest supermarket is Shop Rite on Fairview Avenue in the adjacent town of Greenport, which is more than two miles from lower Hudson. There are multiple bodegas in the city, but they are mostly limited to packaged snacks and deli meats, and the one grocer in the city, Olde Hudson, is affordable only to the wealthy.
The problem with food deserts, the argument goes, is people with limited resources are unable to travel the distance to access fresh, healthy food, and therefore rely on corner stores and fast food, causing malnourishment and obesity.
Michelle Williams, director of investments and partnerships for the Young Farmer’s Coalition, undertook a series of interviews on food accessibility in Hudson during 2014, reaching out to individuals and community leaders to see the gaps and needs in the city.
“There were a lot of people without cars who had to walk to Shop Rite [or] who had to catch a ride in some way…transportation’s a major issue,” she said.
The City of Hudson offers no public transportation. Columbia County runs buses through lower Hudson to the shopping plazas of Greenport, including Shop Rite and Walmart, but the buses only run seven times a day and the final bus leaves lower Hudson before 2 p.m., far from the end of most people’s work day.
If a Hudson resident who couldn’t afford a car wanted to buy food at Shop Rite, it would involve an hour round trip, according to the bus schedule, not including shopping time or time spent waiting for the next bus. If they wanted to shop at the lower-priced Wal-Mart, their round trip would clock in at two hours.
There are several private taxi companies in Hudson and Greenport that offer transportation to Shop Rite, but this involves tacking on about $8 for the round trip and having to phone a cab at the end of shopping to be picked up, which adds time to the journey.
Fourteen percent of working-age Hudson residents did not have access to a vehicle in 2016, according to the U.S. Census.
Do Food Deserts Matter?
Leonard Nevarez, chair of the Sociology Department at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, undertook an extensive study with SUNY New Paltz’s Center for Research, Regional Education and Outreach to understand food insecurity and food access in the city of Poughkeepsie.
Part of this study focused on if food inaccessibility — whether because of food deserts or the high price of nutritious food — are driving obesity and ill-health in lower-income communities, or if the cultural views of these communities are to blame.
“I’ve heard in lot of settings from farm advocates, ‘If only people knew how to cook with fresh foods, they would be able to better feed their families,’” he said, adding many argue education is all that is needed in these communities to promote healthier choices, as opposed to it being an issue of accessibility.
In part, the study asked respondents if things like organic or fresh foods were important to them when making shopping decisions, then compared the responses of various economic groups.
Poughkeepsie residents reported essentially the same want for healthy foods regardless of income level, according to the study.
“If it’s not consciousness, it’s pocketbook issues, that’s the implication,” Nevarez said of the conclusions. “It’s just a matter of having the resources to act on the right choices.”
However, that still leaves the question of whether poor eating in low-income communities is because healthy food is geographically inaccessible or monetarily inaccessible. If it’s the geographic inaccessibility, having grocers in food deserts would solve the problem, but if it’s just general impoverishment, these grocers would not help.
The study was unable to weigh in on this question, Nevarez said.
“There is a huge debate in the field of food insecurity about the role of food deserts…I’d say, five years ago, people were really coming down on these food deserts as a main contributor to this problem,” he said.
Since then, the debate has shifted as additional studies have been undertaken, sometimes surveying an area before and after a grocer has opened in a food desert, Nevarez said, adding he was undertaking a second study to see if the opening of new grocers in Poughkeepsie has helped the city become more food-secure.
“Even if we, sometime in the future, disprove the food desert hypothesis, that doesn’t mean it still isn’t a priority for cities to get a grocery store,” he said. “It’s just the consequences may not be as direct as we thought…we should not let mayors and chambers of commerce and other sort of city leaders off the hook for failing to provide a basic urban service.”
Food Deserts in the Hudson Valley
The city of Poughkeepsie, the largest urban center in the Hudson Valley after Yonkers, had its own version of an affordable mobile market open four years ago.
The Dutchess Outreach Fresh Market offers fresh, local produce using a price-variable system in the city, adjusting their food’s cost to the income levels of the neighborhoods they visit.
The market sprung out of Nevarez’s food study and was able to distribute 3,000 pounds of produce from their urban farm and 10,000 pounds of produce donated by local farmers this season, said Sarah Salem, director of development for Dutchess Outreach.
The market accepts all forms of public assistance, and during one of their stops last week, 50 percent of purchases were made via the Farmers Market Nutrition Program, a federal program distributing checks to seniors and women with children under five that can be redeemed for fresh produce, Salem said.
“We’re trying to help sustain a local food system,” Salem said, one where the bounty of the Hudson Valley foodshed is used to nourish its population, instead of relying on food from other parts of the nation, or other countries, which both take money out of the pockets of local farmers and are less nutritious after transport.
When asked whether poverty or food deserts are the main factor leading to unhealthy eating, Salem said it all starts with poverty.
“It’s hard to split it apart, because the reason you aren’t able to access food a lot of the time is because you don’t have money, so you can’t either take public transportation, or you don’t have your own car, or you’re struggling to make ends meet with all of the other obstacles you’re confronted with because of [poverty],” she said.
Rolling Grocer 19 seeks to help solve both problems by locating itself in neighborhoods far from healthy grocery stores, and offering food priced lower than supermarkets in Greenport.
However, “this store’s for everyone,” Berman said. “That’s why we do the three prices…we wanted it to be a very inclusive space.”
Berman, who has worked on food accessibility by gleaning crops for Long Table Harvest, said these sorts of projects can fail if they aren’t done right.
“Because people don’t feel comfortable, and they feel it’s not their space, or it’s a handout — this is not free food,” she said. “This is people paying for food, and that’s really the feedback that we’ve heard…people want to pay for food, they just want it to be within their price range.”
The “19” in Rolling Grocer 19 refers to the 19 communities in Columbia County, which the nonprofit wants to expand to in the future, Berman said, including home delivery to seniors.