Turning a “food desert” in to a healthy garden

Moderated by Rick Badie

Today’s topic focuses on steps being taken to increase wellness and turn the Bankhead community in to a “healthy hub.” I interview the owner of the Super Giant food store, who stocks his grocery with a variety of healthy offerings and allows part of his parking lot to be used as a community garden. The manager of the garden writes our guest column.

Building an oasis in a “food desert”

By Rick Badie

“You on the other line, Boo?,” asked a store clerk after answering the telephone.

The “Boo” in this case is Sam Goswami, owner of the Super Giant Food grocery on Donald Lee Hollowell Parkway. It’s the sole supermarket within a four-mile radius of Bankhead, a low-income community just west of downtown Atlanta. Since buying the grocery in 2003, Goswami has sought to expand nutritious offerings in a neighborhood that’s been defined as a “food desert” — a geographic area where fast food or unhealthy products outweigh the ability to purchase freshly grown foods. Such lack of access can lead to illnesses like diabetes and heart disease. It’s an issue that Goswami, a hotelier by trade, has addressed as a grocer.

Q: I read that you wanted to offer more fresh produce in your store. What progress have you made?

A: We added a 36-foot produce case to the store as part of the remodeling. This addition has added more variety of salads, spinach, fruits and vegetables. We are 40 percent complete with our remodeling efforts. We replaced our old meat cases with triple-decker meat cases, and we replaced our entire food section. We replaced our lighting with LED lighting. The remodeling has added healthier variety to the meat products, as well.

Q: What produce sells the best?

A: For the current season, it’s been collard greens, mustard greens, turnip greens, celery and sweet potatoes.

Q: Are you pleased with your purchase of the store?

A: These are tough times. Due to a loss of a lot of the community in the neighborhood, our customer base has decreased.

Q: What’s caused the population decline?

A: We had three HUD communities here, and they closed them down. I would say that was almost 2,000 apartments or more. That is hurting me a good bit.

Q: How important is the garden to your overall mission as a grocery store owner in the Bankhead area?

A: The garden helps my mission of educating the community about growing and eating nutritionally rich foods as well as the importance of a healthy diet. It helps in my mission to bring the community together for a good cause.

Q: Has the community been receptive?

A: Things are not moving as quickly as we expected, but they are coming along. People are beginning to get involved in the activities we offer. I have hope.

A healthy hub for Bankhead

By Lara Suzanne Martin

“This is free? Really?” she asked me as we filled up her shopping bag with kale.

“Yes, ma’am,” I replied. “We would just ask that you come back to volunteer with us sometime. We can show you how to grow this at home.” Ms. Elaine promised to return to Emory’s Super Giant Community Garden with some compost and a container so she could learn about urban gardening. As she walked away, I saw her look into the bag of fresh vegetables, quietly say, “I ain’t ever had nothing free in my life,” and smile.
That’s the kind of reaction volunteers and community members like to see at the Super Giant Community Garden. It’s a subtle change, a nuanced reaction to something good in their neighborhood in a partnership of Emory University’s Urban Health Initiative, Super Giant Food grocery store and the budding Super Giant Community Garden.

This collection of neighborhoods in northwest Atlanta, commonly referred to as “Bankhead,” meets the USDA’s definition of a food desert; at least 33 percent of the census tract population resides more than a mile from a supermarket or grocery store. Nutritious and diverse fruits and vegetables are hard to come by in this area, which is dotted with corner and dollar stores.

Transportation is a challenge, so even with the desire for fresh fruits and veggies, getting to them can mean a two or three-bus journey that can take hours going just one way. Super Giant Food takes being one of the few large grocery stores in a food desert very seriously. This is what led to this one-of-a-kind partnership.

The garden is on the back parking lot of Super Giant Food in Bankhead. With the store and community, we seek to provide education around urban gardening, nutrition and food access while supporting Super Giant in its effort to increase the amount and variety of fruits and vegetables it carries.

We work with community members to identify vegetables they like and use, and we teach them how to grow and harvest them and even how to cook them in a healthy way. This is anchored by the ability to walk into a grocery store to purchase many of these vegetables if they’d like to have them on a regular basis. Everything we do is seasonal, affordable and sustainable.

Emory’s Super Giant Community Garden is a first step in a larger Urban Health Initiative program called “The Healthy Hub,” which aims to increase wellness in Bankhead. Healthy Hub will expand food access projects like the community garden into health care access through an on-site walk-in clinic, education through in-store labeling, a teaching kitchen, a working/learning restaurant and a laundromat.

That’s why the our garden is grateful to the Woodard and Curran Foundation for its generous $10,000 grant for community engagement, events and support for other sustainability initiatives. Every event at the garden is an extension of our belief in being consistent, compassionate and caring in all we do and creating a safe and productive space for everyone who enters the gates.

The greatest challenge will be continuing to engage and maintain a presence in the community through these changes. We want to ensure this vision — improving the health and happiness of the Bankhead neighborhood and beyond — is the community’s vision, and that its members are the driving force behind it.

So, when Ms. Elaine returns to the garden with her compost, container and recipes of her own to share, the whole neighborhood benefits.

Lara Suzanne Martin is manager of the Super Giant Community Garden in Bankhead.


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