By Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer

Some areas are dotted with long abandoned grocery stores. Others never had any to begin with. Sadly, empty carts mean empty bellies for those hungry in the Sacramento area. (Photo by Louis Bryant III).

During the continued coronavirus pandemic it has become normal for shoppers to complain about high food prices and scarce availability of products. For many Black people, however, it’s nothing new.

Living in food deserts has prepared them for survival in crisis mode. They’ve had years of practice with “making due” and “doing what you have to” in order to feed themselves and their families.

Food deserts are areas that lack access to healthy and affordable food options. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines a food desert as an area that has either a poverty rate of at least 20% or a median family income not exceeding 80% of the median family income in urban areas, or 80% of the statewide median family income in nonurban areas.

Racial disparities in food insecurity predate COVID-19, but the pandemic has heightened matters. Feeding America estimated that 24%, or nearly 1 in 4, of African Americans experienced food insecurity in 2021, compared to 11% of White individuals, or 1 in 9.

The face of hunger has also changed in recent times. 

Sharita Humphrey, an award-winning certified financial education instructor, speaks of being previously homeless and relying on food stamps. Today, Humphrey teaches individuals across the country how to budget and save. Knowing how to make limited dollars stretch, particularly for those who already have limited access to grocery options, is critical, she says.
Living in a food desert often means traveling far to shop, or for those who can’t, shopping at convenience stores and mini marts like 7-Eleven and AM/PM. Many of these corner stores are more likely to sell liquor and junk food than lunch or dinner fixings in large quantities.

“A lot of times we’re shopping at what’s within our neighborhoods,” Humphrey said.

“Depending on where you live, you may or may not have a means of transportation, or there may be very limited public transportation. So of course, we’re going to use what’s close; especially for those who have young children at home, we’re not trying to go too far away. Unfortunately, those particular food deserts tend to greatly benefit because they know that this is the only thing within a certain mile radius of where we live, or what’s available. Having more of the bigger box stores come into the communities, especially for those who are Black and brown will definitely help to reduce the cost of what we’re doing,” she continued.

Danielle Rinderknecht sees better health outcomes for the Black community and fills boxes with fresh produce from local growers. (Photo by Louis Bryant III).

Local entrepreneur Danielle Rinderknecht owns and operates Goodful, a supplier of organic vegetables she calls bounty boxes. Goodful is located at 36th Street and Broadway in Sacramento’s Oak Park neighborhood. It’s only two blocks from an empty lot that was supposed to become a Fresh and Easy grocery store. Back in 2011, then Mayor Kevin Johnson and City Councilmember Jay Schenirer attended a groundbreaking, but the project never materialized. Further down the street, on Broadway and Stockton Boulevard, a former Food Source location remains empty after closing last year. A new store, Rancho San Miguel Market, was supposed to open last month, but hasn’t, reportedly due to COVID-related construction and supply chain issues.

Rinderknecht moved her business to Oak Park in February. Before COVID-19, Goodful offered restaurant meals and catering from a commercial kitchen in Del Paso Heights. 

“There’s not many grocery store options,” Rinderknecht said of the area she’s now in.

“It’s not good. There are so many people that live in Oak Park that need to have things that are more within reach, and things that are within reach frankly, just aren’t good for your body,” she added.

Without access to healthy foods, people living in food deserts are at higher risk of conditions such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease. Rinderknecht envisions creating condition-based meals for customers that address some of the chronic health issues that disproportionately impact African Americans. 

She’ll curate the boxes after a mini assessment with clients and with the help of certified nutritionists. 

“There will be a list of products that we would send home to those folks and recipes that go with them, and also some educational nutritional information about why those things are good to eat for whatever condition the person is living with,” she said.

Rinderknecht hopes to launch the new service in January 2022.

“I definitely had the community in mind when I was thinking of that,” she said.  

“Historically, Black and brown folks, we are not as healthy. Mostly, I think a lot of it is because of education and access. The education piece about food could literally apply to the whole country, so I’m not just saying that it’s us that are uneducated about food, but you know, what surrounds us in our neighborhoods is generally not the best option. That’s why it’s important for me, because I want to see us thriving; it’s beyond time.”

Customers can also access Goodful’s bounty online through the website, Rinderknecht is working with the USDA to accept EBT, or food stamps, on the site, in order to reach more people. 

Humphrey also points out that bigger stores like Amazon and Whole Foods moved to accept EBT online during the pandemic, when it became more difficult for low-income consumers to shop while sheltering in place.

“The idea is there for you to be able to utilize, for those who may be in areas where there’s not public transportation, or the cost of food is too high,” she shared.

Moving to accept food stamps is personally important to Rinderknecht, having to rely on them herself, while establishing her business.

“I think like any food or restaurant owner will tell you, it’s pretty hard to support yourself in a food business and that becomes more challenging when the food business is focused on something like what we’re doing, trying to provide the masses with healthy food,” she shared.

“And healthy food, when you get even more into it, like being local and seasonal, is even more expensive than just buying organic. It was a challenge.  We didn’t have any investors, so it was essentially just me trying to be super scrappy, and get everything together. EBT was super helpful for me.”

Having been on food stamps, Rinderknecht says she understands how hard shopping is when you’re on a limited budget.

“I want to be able to eat healthy and not have it be hard. I think that part of it is having access to it and having it easy to get to, not only being able to buy it, but also being able to receive it, where it’s within walking distance or something, and doesn’t need a car, an Uber ride or something to get there.”

Those who own or have access to vehicles can travel further away to neighborhoods with more grocery stores. Cabs and ride sharing options like Uber and Lyft cost money that take away from families’ food budgets. The further you live from a store, the more a ride home with bags of groceries will cost. 

Uber Technologies, Inc. spokesperson Zahid Arab says in the last year, an average of 870 trips per week in Sacramento were people getting picked up from grocery stores. More and more consumers are also relying on services like Instacart to bring their groceries directly to them. Uber ramped up its own grocery delivery service this summer. 

During the pandemic, a number of entities have stepped up to host food giveaways for those impacted by related layoffs, closures and prolonged unemployment.

The lack of transportation has been a cause for concern, as some organizations allow for walk-ups and others don’t. Due to COVID-safety precautions, at some distribution efforts, if  you don’t own a car, you cannot participate. 

Hundreds of cars show up for weekly food giveaways organized by the South Sacramento Christian Center. Several grocery stores nearby on Mack Road have been shuttered.  Many churches have become food “ambassadors” in the communities they serve, says South Sacramento Christian Center’s senior pastor, Les Simmons.

“We were that before the pandemic, but when the pandemic hit, we knew that there was going to be some food insecurities,” Simmons said.

In August, Simmons put the number of people they had served during the pandemic at 150,000 and counting. Two weeks prior to the start of the pandemic, Simmons said there was $900 in the church’s emergency food account. 

“We said we’re going to have to do big, think big and go non-stop, go hard and we did.”

Staff took out the pews from one of the church’s COVID-emptied sanctuaries and built a 5,000 square foot storage refrigerator in their place.

“We’re now able to accommodate close to 2,000 people weekly with food. We serve food boxes weekly with fresh produce, fresh dairy, fresh meats and then we’re a food hub for other community organizations and churches to also distribute food to their communities as well.”

It’s not uncommon, Simmons says, to see families with as many as 10 people in their households driving up for food assistance.

“We have full-time staffing to help prepare all the food that we get Monday through Friday to distribute on Saturday.”

Rinderknecht would like to see more outside-the-box approaches as well. She points to a number of community gardens in the Oak Park area and is contemplating one of her own.

“I love community gardens,” she said. “In my head, the idea behind the community garden is not to sell food, but it is to grow it for the community and give it to the community, so I hope that that’s what everyone else is planning to do,” she added.

“There are so many vacant lots and lots of dirt that we could be growing food on, educating people about why we’re growing the food, how we’re growing the food, why that food is healthy. And just even if it provided one family with an extra vegetable or thing of fruit per week, that would be amazing.”