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Rochester is developing a $5M plan to build markets in food deserts

Man at supermarket
Rido
/
stock.adobe.com
A man shopping for vegetables at a supermarket.

When Nancy Maciuska goes grocery shopping, it’s an outing, one she has to plan for.

The 60-year-old Marketview Heights resident gets up early in the morning, takes her shopping cart, and walks to the Tops Friendly Market on North Clinton and Upper Falls Boulevard.

“It takes me about 45 minutes to get there. And then it takes me about 45 minutes to get back,” she said. “Now that's if I'm walking really fast.”

The lack of grocery stores in the northeast quadrant and throughout much of Rochester is the focus of a food equity program being developed by City Hall.

Mayor Malik Evans is committing $5 million in federal rescue plan dollars for the effort. The idea is to attract supermarkets to underserved areas, or assist nonprofits like Abundance Co-op to open additional locations, or help an established neighborhood merchants expand into fresh foods.

To understand why this investment is critical, just look at Buffalo.

The mass shooting at the East Side Tops closed a vital community resource. Since then, residents there have been boarding shuttles to shop at groceries across town, or relied on makeshift food distribution sites.

“We would have had to do the same thing here,” Evans said. “And that's shameful.”

Maciuska’s other grocery option is the Hudson Avenue Wal-mart, with an equally long travel time by bus. Corner stores and dollar stores are plentiful. But with few exceptions, the food options are mainly canned, boxed or frozen. And the inflationary prices are even worse.

“Milk is costing almost five bucks,” said Maciuska, who is on a fixed income. “Eggs are $4. … Bread has been over $2, you know, three bucks, actually about three bucks — for just a loaf of bread.”

A worsening problem

Dana Miller, who leads the city’s neighborhood and business development efforts, ticks off the full-service groceries by quadrant. A couple in both the northeast and northwest. Three or four in the southeast.

“In the southwest, where I live, we have Tops,” he said. “And that’s it.”

These food deserts, as they are called, mostly exist in lower-income neighborhoods, where residents are predominately people of color.

This wasn’t always the case. Rather, it’s a situation years in the making as Harts and Star Supermarkets, then Wegmans and most recently Tops have shuttered city stores. Aldi and Price Rite have moved in but not at the same pace.

Wegmans, though based here, has one city store on East Avenue, and runs weekly shuttles from lower-income apartment towers to its suburban locations.

Limited access to healthy, fresh food is a problem in cities nationwide — putting scores of people at increased risk of chronic illnesses like diabetes and heart disease. A newly created Food Policy Council has just begun meeting and could assist in the effort.

“What we would like to do is create, in some way, a supermarket opportunity in each quadrant of the city,” Miller said.

'We have to be strategic'

City Councilmember Mitch Gruber is central to this discussion. He also is chief of partnerships and strategy for Foodlink, the regional food bank in the Finger Lakes.

“The time is right, the time is now to do it,” Gruber said of addressing the scarcity of healthy, fresh food options. “We just have to be really sound and strategic.”

What city officials want to avoid is another Constantino’s. The Cleveland-based grocer was drawn to Rochester’s College Town, given a $750,000 low-interest, federally-funded loan, and closed after 10 months in February 2016

Gruber doesn’t look at the matter by quadrant but the overall scarcity of fresh food options.

“What we know is, right now (the number of grocery stores) is insufficient,” he said. But there remains a lot of work to be done to determine how to fix that. “There is money appropriated, but no plan yet.”

That work is just beginning, to be led by an internal working group. The city’s Food Desert Program should launch in August, officials said.

Brian Sharp is WXXI's business and development reporter. He has been covering Rochester since 2005, working most of that time as an investigative reporter with the Democrat and Chronicle. His journalism career spans nearly three decades.