“It’s hard,” says Jeanetta, a resident at Schenectady’s Yates Village, a public housing project in the north end of the city, who didn’t want to give her last name. “I do the best I can, but it’s hard, especially when you have kids. They stick us down here and they don’t really help us,” she says, a tear rolling down her cheek.
Jeanetta is currently out of work after having an on-the-job heart attack last year — “they fired me because I was a liability,” she says — and has applied for SNAP benefits, more commonly known as food stamps. While she waits the requisite 45 days for approval, Jeanetta’s life is a patchwork of making it work under tremendous stress. She travels from food bank to food bank, often on the other side of town, often making the journey on foot, since buses are unreliable. The quality of the food she receives is often suspect.
“The canned goods got last year’s date on it, and the bread can be hard, sometimes. We can get sick too, just like any other person can get sick. And when they give us produce, it’s damaged. It’s brown. It’s bruised and soggy, but they still put it in our bag,” she tells The Alt.
Jeanetta runs out of food on a regular basis, and says that she is currently not eating so that her young son, who is on medication for his ADHD, can eat what limited food she can cobble together. “I lost a lot of weight, by starving myself,” she says. “But I don’t want my son to worry about it. He’s a child. Only thing he needs to worry about is school, keeping his room clean. Normal stuff.”
Jeanetta is part of the 22 percent of Schenectady residents who utilize food pantries on a monthly basis, according to the Schenectady County Healthy and Equitable Food Action Plan. She is part of the population known as “food insecure,” of whom 92 percent will run out of food by the end of the month.
Even when Jeanetta does get her SNAP benefits, she will still have to travel a great distance to attain fresh food, as she, like every resident of Schenectady’s northside, lives in a food desert — an area that lacks access to affordable grocery stores that carry fresh, healthy food. There’s a good chance that even with SNAP, she will continue to run out of food by the end of each month. Because Jeanetta has no car, and because public transportation is inconsistent or nonexistent where she lives, she will continue having to walk to the nearest grocery store, the Price Chopper on Eastern Parkway, nearly three miles away, or she will expend precious resources to take a cab to the Glenville Walmart, the way many of her neighbors do. She will most likely buy cheaper boxed or canned food, rather than fresh produce, which tends to be more expensive and not last as long, despite the known health benefits — benefits she, with her multiple health problems, could certainly use.
Nine census tracts in Albany County and nine census tracts in Schenectady County are classified as food deserts according to a report by Siena College. More than 40,000 people in Albany County and around 20,000 people in Schenectady County live in these food deserts. But the problem is bigger than that, according to experts. They say downtown Troy is also a food desert even though it isn’t classified as such in USDA stats, since it lacks a local supermarket.
“We’re in a region rich in food. We’re in the Hudson-Mohawk foodshed region, and yet we are sitting in a food desert,” Amy Klein, Executive Director of Capital Roots told The Alt. Capital Roots’ offices, on River Street in Troy, is indeed located in another Capital Region food desert, a low-income neighborhood where access to fresh, healthy, affordable food is extremely limited.
The Capital Region is also a region rich in supermarkets, which tend to be clustered in suburban neighborhoods. “Grocery stores focus on where the perceived wealth is, and I don’t fault the grocery stores for going where they can make the most money,” says Klein. There’s also been a trend of supersizing stores that makes it hard to operate in urban areas. “The grocers of today are not necessarily interested in smaller models like the grocers of yesteryear,” says Klein.
This might have to do with the fact that the profit margins at grocery stores tend to be extremely slim — “1% on a good day,” says Mona Golub, spokesperson for Price Chopper, which remains relatively more committed to smaller stores and locating in urban areas than other supermarket chains, as evidenced by its urban stores in Schenectady, Albany, and Watervliet. There are multiple factors that go into deciding where to open a grocery store, says Golub, and any investment in construction and staffing has to eventually pay for itself, or it’s impossible to operate a store.
Kat Wolfram of the Electric City Food Co-op is determined to open a grocery store in Downtown Schenectady in order to provide fresh food alternatives in that neighborhood, but she is similarly constrained by economics. “I have to create something that will be successful,” says Wolfram. “Success means that we last. We can’t start, open, and then close the doors,” the way the Pioneer Market, another member-owned food cooperative, did in Troy in 2011. To continue to be operational, the co-op will have to cater to two populations; not just the underserved people who live downtown, but also “destination shoppers” — those who come from more wealthy areas, who can help float sales.
Still, it is difficult to ask any one corporation or food cooperative to solve the food insecurity problem in the Capital Region by itself. The question of government intervention plays a role. Other states, such as Pennsylvania, have started subsidy programs to attract grocery stores to low-to-moderate income urban neighborhoods and rural neighborhoods that might be food deserts. The Pennsylvania Fresh Food Financing Initiative (FFFI) is a public-private partnership where a store must pledge to locate in an underserved location in order to receive a state subsidy to keep its doors open. “It would be interesting to see business and government come together on the topic of food deserts to discuss partnering on solutions,” said Golub. FFFI provides $250,000 to a million dollars to individual stores and chains who promise to create quality jobs and increase access to quality food to needy populations.
There is no equivalent program in New York State yet.
Klein’s organization takes a different route, as Capital Roots doesn’t want to “beat their heads against the wall” wrestling with public policy over subsidies and grocery store locations. Instead, Capital Roots has–over the past decade or so–“put together a web of programs” that meet people where they are, to alleviate the problem of food insecurity right now. “Each of our programs is focused on coming into the neighborhoods where people live,” says Klein. “The produce [we provide] is about half the cost of what they could buy in the supermarket if they had one in their neighborhood.”
Capital Roots’ Veggie Mobile is parked outside Kennedy Towers, a low-income senior housing project operated by Troy Housing Authority, on a sunny Thursday afternoon. The truck, which contains a mobile mini-grocery store, stocked in varied and fresh produce straight from regional farms, is here every week for one hour, from 2:45 PM to 3:45 PM. Two trucks make over 35 stops in five urban centers in the Capital Region throughout the week, stopping at public housing projects and places where low-income people congregate, like Hometown Health in Schenectady.
Brenna Healey of Capital Roots, who operates the Veggie Mobile, says that Kennedy Towers is her favorite stop. “[The seniors] love the music” — the truck blasts old-school soul and motown classics — “and they’re just so nice,” says Healey. “There’s a great sense of community here.”
“I like this truck,” says Raymond Mayo, a resident at Kennedy Towers, who is sitting with his friends. “I like it.”
His neighbor, Walter Scott, pipes up. “The prices are outrageous in the store, especially when you’re on Social Security. They don’t give you nothing for nothing. Everything’s sky high.”