Cleveland working to promote convenient access to healthy foods in neighborhoods

In late January, Cleveland City Council unanimously approved restrictions on where new small-box retail stores can be located. To slow the proliferation of dollar stores, the recent legislation prohibits them from being built or opened within two miles of an existing discount store. 

“As it stands now, there are a lot of family, small-box retail stores clustered in poor communities of color,” said Blaine Griffin, Ward 6 Councilman who was elected new Council President in November. “We want to promote more full-service grocery stores, so we looked at our zoning tools and decided we could put a reasonable distance between these small-box retail stores.”

Griffin and council define a full-service grocery store as one that offers a produce section with fresh fruits and vegetables, a butcher and other healthy food options that typically aren’t available in dollar stores that are more likely to serve packaged and frozen foods. These stores also need to be easily accessible on foot or by public transportation for residents who may not own motor vehicles.

There are now several initiatives underway to help residents gain access to healthy foods. The Land recently took a look at these efforts to see if they’re working and what we can learn from them. 

One-third of residents lack convenient access to fresh food

According to a “Small Discount Retail Store” report completed by the Cleveland City Planning Commission in 2020, a small-box retail store is between 3,000 and 15,000 square feet in size and dedicates less than 15% of shelf space to fresh or fresh frozen foods and produce or foods that have not been processed in any way. 

A supermarket assessment completed by the Cuyahoga County Board of Health in 2018 indicated that countywide, 456,000 residents or 36% of the population live more than half mile from a grocery store and live in a high poverty area while nearly 193,000 residents live more than one mile from a grocery store. 

The report also revealed that approximately 230,000 persons living in food deserts – areas without easy access to healthy foods – are African American. About 50% of all Cleveland residents, and 25% of all Cuyahoga County residents, live in a “food desert”; and of the Cleveland residents living in a food desert, 60% describe themselves as “non-white.”

Given this, it’s no easy or simple task to bring back fresh foods and full-service grocery stores to Cleveland. But several efforts are underway that aim to do just that. 

Grocery stores returning to Cleveland

Griffin cited several recent successes in bringing full-service grocery stores back into the city, starting with the new $53 million mixed-use development that features a Meijer grocery store and 200-unit apartment building. In December, developers broke ground on the complex at East 105th and Cedar Ave. The location will serve residents of the Fairfax neighborhood, as well as employees at the Cleveland Clinic and University Circle.

Rendering of Meijer Market in the Fairfax neighborhood. Contributed photo.

“I’m so happy with what Meijer is doing because they’re not coming in to put one of their large retail outlets in the inner city,” Griffin said. “It’s going to be a very high-quality small store, but it’s going to serve all of the things that a good supermarket has.”

Additionally, he said, last March University Circle filled the space left by Constantino’s Market, which closed the previous April in the Uptown District on the edge of CWRU’s campus. In keeping with the city’s desire to add fresh food options for residents, Griffin said, the new Plum Market Kitchen is known for its organic and healthy groceries. 

Shortly before Griffin took office in 2017, a Giant Eagle store in his district had closed and moved out of Buckeye Plaza. He was able to recruit a Simon’s Supermarket that opened in the former store’s space in October 2018.

“Part of losing the big supermarkets like Giant Eagle is because of population loss in the city and the high-volume kind of business model that they have,” he said. “However, we are all fervently trying to recruit full-service grocery stores to service our inner-city communities.”

Griffin added that he would still like to see a full-service grocery store open in the East 93rd and Union Avenue area to try to ensure that residents there also have good, convenient options to purchase healthy foods within walking distance.

New dollar store concept offers better selection

Some dollar stores and convenient stores have pivoted to provide fresh foods. In June 2019, Dollar General opened its first DGX Cleveland store downtown in Reserve Square on East 12th Street. The location features a smaller store that includes healthy food options. The new retail concept for Dollar General combines a selection of to-go items along with an assortment of low-priced groceries. 

“This is a pilot format store where they have pivoted a little bit to be more grocery and fresh-food focused,” said Morgan Taggart, director, Healthy Food Access Initiatives for the Prevention Research Center for Healthy Neighborhoods at Case Western Reserve University. 

According to a spokesperson at Dollar General’s corporate offices, each of the company’s stores throughout the country, regardless of format, offer “components of a healthier diet such as dairy products, proteins, grains, and frozen vegetables,” along with its Good & Smart private brand to provide additional healthier and affordable food options. Dollar General also partnered with a registered dietician and nutritionist “to develop a series of ‘Better For You’ recipes, which aim to provide resources to customers on how to source healthier meal options with products solely sourced from our stores.” 

FARE’s Heart Smart program in Chillie’s in the Mt. Pleasant neighborhood. Contributed photo.

There are two other independent stores in Cleveland that are slightly larger but offer healthy and fresh foods, Taggart added: Tony’s Market in the Clark-Fulton neighborhood, and Sheliga Drug Store, an independent pharmacy at 60th and St. Clair Ave.

“Both of those stores are bigger than a corner store and they serve multiple needs, but both have found their niche in their communities,” Taggart said. “Sheliga, for example, sells a lot of food products from Eastern Europe, serving that community, too.”

FARE’s Heart Smarts program should start again this summer

Taggart oversaw the Heart Smarts program in her other role as Director of Food Access Raises Everyone (FARE). In 2019, they worked with six corner stores in Central-Kinsman, Clark-Fulton, East Cleveland, and Mt. Pleasant neighborhoods. Instructors provided weekly nutrition lessons for a couple hours in each store, and participants would receive $5-8 worth of Health Bucks vouchers that could be used to purchase fresh foods and beverages. FARE gave out $12,000 worth of vouchers. 

According to Taggart, 2,400 customers participated in Heart Smarts before they had to shut down because of the Covid-19 pandemic. About 89% of those people were African American and about 3% Latinx, though they had just started at Tony’s Market in Clark-Fulton before they had to stop. From the surveys they distributed, Taggart said that 80% of their participants ate less than one serving of fruits and vegetables per day.

Self-reported surveys the customers completed revealed that 40% increased their fruit and vegetable intake, 30% decreased the amount of sodium in their diets, and 20% increased their physical activity.

During the program, Taggart says, they learned that customers sought other health-related information from the instructors such as what to do about diabetes or heart disease or how to quit smoking. They also asked about other issues such as housing and mental and behavioral health support.

“Moving forward this summer when we plan to start again, our Heart Smarts program will address some of those other health issues that impact peoples’ lives and quality of life in their communities,” she said. “We learned that reaching this audience and connecting them to resources could be an even bigger part of the program than just focusing on nutrition.”

Hayden Food Plus in East Cleveland. Photo by Christopher Johnston.

Taggart said it’s been difficult to work with dollar stores because of their corporate structure. The Heart Smart program will restart this summer, focusing on nutritional education awareness about healthy foods and lifestyles, health screenings for blood pressure, and other programs inside the corner stores. 

Mario Shoman, manager if Hayden Food Plus at 1730  Hayden Ave. in East Cleveland, participated in Heart Smart. He said the store offered more healthy and fresh foods, but he ended up throwing out a lot of the food when the program shut down because people weren’t buying much of it.

“Twenty years ago, more people were buying food, going home and cooking,” said Shoman, who’s worked at Hayden for more than 25 years. “Now, everybody wants to buy everything cooked and ready to go, go home, and eat, like getting takeout at a restaurant and going home to eat.”

Brooklyn Centre resident Ebonie Joyner said her neighborhood hasn’t had a full-service grocery store for more than a decade. She started the Shalom & Tranquility Community Garden in her community to serve as a source of fresh food.

“We’re all plagued by the social determinants of health, but where I live not only do you have those things, but it’s hurtful to see families shopping at convenience and dollar stores,” she said. “We have options, but we don’t have good options, so we’re dying from heart disease and health problems related to diabetes and so on.”

Joyner was glad to work with the FARE program and looking forward to the program starting up again.“We have the ability to empower the community with the knowledge to make good choices and with FARE giving them a voucher to make those healthy choices,” she said.

Christopher Johnston has published more than 3,000 articles in publications such as Christian Science Monitor, Scientific American and His book, Shattering Silences: New Approaches to Healing Survivors of Rape and Bringing Their Assailants to Justice (Skyhorse) was published in February 2018.

f an existing discount store.