Urban revitalization does not at first glance relate to the growing national interest in fresh fruits and vegetables. But the Pennsylvania-based Food Trust views the supermarket as the perfect starting point for improving the commercial viability of a neighborhood. When the group launched back in 1992, it was originally dedicated to expanding farmers' markets throughout Philadelphia. Today, the group is working tirelessly to eliminate food deserts--areas without any access to "real" food.

To accomplish this goal, the Food Trust is working with Pennsylvania lawmakers to develop a series of public/private partnerships that address food access problems. One such program is the Fresh Food Financing Initiative, a grant and loan program that encourages supermarkets to open in underserved areas. The group is also working on nutrition policy for Philadelphia schools and is helping corner stores improve their produce offerings. Yael Lehmann, The Food Trust's executive director, spoke with The Atlantic about what supermarkets can accomplish for cities nationwide. 

How did The Food Trust start?

Duane Perry, the founder of The Food Trust, used to manage the Reading Terminal market in Philadelphia. It's a really cool market, with every kind of food you could possibly want. Right around 1992, he had a light bulb go off: "Reading Terminal Market is such a great asset to Philadelphia, but I really wish there could be Reading Terminals all across the city." He'd heard from people at the market that they'd taken two buses to get there--he knew that in most of the neighborhoods outside Center City, people had to travel vast distances to find fresh produce.

So he founded The Food Trust, and first thing we did was open farmers' markets in low-income areas that had no access to fresh and affordable food. We still run about 30 farmers markets, and we accept food stamps at all of those markets.

Nearly 20 years after The Food Trust was founded, how has our understanding of food availability changed?

It's certainly new for people to be aware of what we now call a "food desert." When I first began working with Duane Perry, we had to spend a lot of time showing people maps, showing them the evidence. Of course, when we spoke to the folks who actually lived in those neighborhoods, they were acutely aware that there was no fresh food available.

Beginning around 2002, we put a lot of effort into showing people how serious the problem was in Philadelphia, and showing that it had serious health consequences. The areas where there was no access to fresh food also had the highest rates of diet-related deaths. After we launched our first report, showing a connection between health and food access, people started to pay attention here. City council members and state representatives were surprised. They hadn't seen anything like that. So we started to feel some movement and some mobilization.

Has increased national awareness of nutrition, discussed most prominently by Michelle Obama, factored into your work?

We're thrilled that the First Lady has embraced this approach as part of her campaign to end childhood obesity. As part of her Let's Move program, she includes something called the Healthy Food Financing Initiative, which has the goal of eliminating food deserts in seven years. This national initiative will invest $400 million the first year, and it will be based on our Fresh Food Financing Initiative here in Pennsylvania. We started our program in 2004, and six years later, there have been 83 projects. The results are so exciting: half a million people who didn't have access to fresh food now do. We brought grocery stores into neighborhoods that hadn't had them for 20 years. When the First Lady and other folks at the White House saw that this could really work, they got excited. They can see that the investment really pays.

Is there something unique about Philadelphia's food access problems that make The Food Trust especially significant there?

There truly was a crisis in that so many people lacked access to fresh food. For change to occur, there has to be that urgency, that feeling of "We can't wait on this anymore. We have to do something." Along with that, we have a few different visionaries here, like Representative Dwight Evans. Another thing that's great about this area--and this is crucial--is that we were able to engage the grocery operators themselves. That wouldn't necessarily be the case everywhere. So all of these things converged with a remarkable result. 

Lately you've been working on improving healthy offerings in the iconic corner store. How are you going about this?  

We truly feel that this has to be a comprehensive approach. It's really about trying to make it as easy as possible for people to eat healthy. You try and hit it from multiple angles. So we work in schools, improving the food choices; our school programs have been shown to reduce childhood obesity by 50%. But one of the things the teachers told us was that kids just went and shopped at the corner store after school. They could buy a ton of calories for not a lot of money. The baseline results from one of the research studies that we're doing right now shows that kids get more than 600 calories every time they go to the corner store.

There's a lot of interest across the country on what we can do with corner stores, especially those located near schools. We just received stimulus funding to work in 1000 stores in Philadelphia. Before that, we were working with just 40. The level of intervention ranges from transforming a place top to bottom to just making sure it has at least one unit of refrigeration that can hold fresh fruit salads. 

Is providing access enough? For people who haven't ever learned how to cook, do you also need to provide outreach?  

We've also started doing supermarket tours. It can be pretty complex for anybody, including me, to make sense of food labels, especially since there's a lot of misleading marketing. We have started doing nutrition education at supermarkets. For foodservice folks, there has been a need to do some education. We recently arranged a knife skills class. 

But I don't want to perpetuate the stereotype that somehow I can teach other people how to eat. This is really an equity issue. I think we all deserve some of the basic things in life. I think we all deserve to be able to get food from the grocery store in our neighborhood. 

Do you confront criticism that you're not doing enough when it comes to sustainable, organic foods?

We are increasingly trying to see how we can incorporate local food into grocery stores and corner stores. I think there's a lot of potential there. But not everyone can grow eggplant in the backyard. If you're going to try to solve the problem of food deserts across the country, there has to be a large solution to a large problem.

Have you seen neighborhoods change as a result of introducing supermarkets?  

There are numerous examples. Progress Plaza is the nation's oldest African American -owned and -developed shopping center. Until recently, the Plaza had a Radio Shack and a dollar store and that's about it. The area hadn't had a supermarket in over 10 years. But then this new Fresh Grocer came up. And if you saw the plaza now, you wouldn't recognize it. Supermarkets really do serve as anchors. Now there are all these gorgeous stores on the plaza, and it looks amazing.

We're about to launch a city program in New Orleans. There was already a food access problem there before Katrina, but afterward, the city lost about half of its grocery stores. And when talking to city council, the only thing that has worked to bring residents back to a neighborhood is bringing in a supermarket. It makes people happy to live in the neighborhood, and it also brings confidence. It brings shoppers and therefore other businesses, and pretty soon you get into this really great cycle where everybody's winning. More people are shopping, more businesses are opening, and nobody has to take buses anymore to get a bag of groceries.

Photo courtesy of The Food Trust