Fighting 'Food Apartheid' In Kansas City, Kansas, With Community Markets And Mobile Grocers
While pandemic food aid programs have ended, organizations like Cross-Lines are searching for long-term solutions to increase food access.
Brittany Patton, 25, is filling up her cart with fresh produce as she walks around the Cross-Lines Community Market in Kansas City, Kansas.
It’s her first time at the market since opening in July. Beforehand, visits to the Cross-Lines food pantry helped her and her husband get by, after a foot injury last summer made her unable to work.
With the community market, Patton can choose the items they’ll eat, like fruits and vegetables.
“I like it more because I know what my family likes to eat more of,” she said. “I’m getting exactly what I want instead of having to pick and choose and eat something we don’t like.”
The market is an example of how community organizations are developing long-term solutions to combat hunger in Wyandotte County. Their goal: increase access to healthy and affordable food for residents in Wyandotte County, where 16.3% of people were food insecure in 2020, according to projections from Feeding America.
Located along South Pyle Street and Shawnee Avenue, the market is run by the Kansas City, Kansas, social service agency Cross-Lines.
Like any typical grocery store, baskets near the front hold produce: from fresh ears of corn to potatoes to habanero peppers. Aisles are stocked with canned goods, peanut butter and dried beans. Coolers in the back hold meat, milk and eggs. There’s paper towels, diapers and toilet paper, too.
Before Cross-Lines opened the market, it ran a traditional food pantry, where people received a box of food items. The pandemic spurred the organization to change.
“So often, food pantries are just stuck in a basement somewhere, and they’re not a place anybody wants to go,” said Susila Jones, executive director of Cross-Lines. “We want to create a space that people want to come to and kids feel like they’re just going to a grocery store, and not like they’re going to a food pantry.”
The opening of the Merc Co-Op in the Strawberry Hill neighborhood last year added another full-service grocery store to Kansas City, Kansas. Other community organizations are hoping to build similar, long-lasting solutions.
In 2021, Feeding America projected that 14.6% of residents there will experience food insecurity.
KCK’s food insecurity issue
Cross-Lines’ market is in the Armourdale neighborhood in the lower part of the Kansas River valley. The nearest grocery store is a Family Dollar.
In Wyandotte County, U.S. Department of Agriculture data from 2015 found nearly 42,000 residents lacked access to a nearby grocery store. Additional data shows residents who lived in low-income census tracts in Kansas City, Kansas, were more likely to lack access to a grocery store. The USDA defines a census tract as low access if at least 33% of the population or 500 people live more than a half mile from a supermarket in urban areas.
The lack of access to healthy foods is likely impacting communities of color, as census data shows 30% of the population in Kansas City, Kansas, is Hispanic and 23% is Black. Data from Feeding America shows 22,310 Wyandotte County residents were food insecure in 2019 — about 13.5% of the county.
It’s a common problem across Kansas City, Kansas, which is a food desert. It comes with severe health consequences.
“If you don’t have enough to eat, you can’t function at the capacity that you should be functioning at,” said Kim Weaver, co-founder of the group WyCo Mutual Aid. “If you’re having to make choices between food or medicine, or food and toilet paper, things like that, then you’re not operating to the best of your ability.”
Jones with Cross-Lines said the issue is compounded by limited public transportation.
“If you’re on public transportation, it takes you over an hour to get there (the supermarket) and an hour to get back,” she said. “It plays a huge issue in the quality of health, quality of life, to not have access to fresh produce, if your only access is to fast food and convenience stores.”
Alyssa Moncure works at Groundwork NRG, an organization serving northeast Kansas City, Kansas. Moncure uses a different term to describe the lack of access to food there: food apartheid.
“Which is a very intentionally designed system to prevent access to fresh, healthy foods, but also prevents innovation and creation, and self sufficiency,” they said. “This system definitely promotes reliance on extractive businesses.”
For Moncure, food apartheid has roots in historic redlining and disinvestment.
Growing up, Terrance Henderson shopped at the neighborhood market with his parents in northeast Kansas City, Kansas. Those stores are gone now.
Henderson, who lives in Kansas City, Kansas, attributes the decline in local grocery stores to chains like Price Chopper, Aldi and Sun Fresh. These stores are located in Wyandotte County — but none are in the northeast.
“It starts to price out all the little mom and pop neighborhood grocery stores,” he said.
Short-term pandemic solutions for food in Kansas City, Kansas
The USDA distributed over 173 million free food boxes from May 2020 to May 2021 as part of its multi-billion dollar program, Farmers to Families Food Boxes.
“We’ve gone back to business as usual,” Jones said of the end of pandemic food aid programs. “However, food insecurity hasn’t decreased. … People still need food.”
Groundwork NRG delivered these USDA food boxes throughout Kansas City, Kansas.
Though the food boxes were a success, Moncure said it’s important to establish consistent systems.
“We have a duty to feed our neighbors if we have the resources,” they said.
“A lot of it has been us trying to help people figure out what pantries are open, how to get to the pantry, how to navigate those spaces, and then just community giving … to each other and making sure that other people have enough food to eat,” Weaver said.
As more people return to work, food insecurity is still an ongoing problem.
“We have a lot of people who do work, who are employed, but they are just barely making it,” Jones said. “We want to continue to be that stopgap so that people don’t have to decide between buying healthy food and paying rent.”
How community markets provide free food
Unlike a traditional grocery store, items at the Cross-Lines Community Market aren’t priced in dollars. Peanut butter costs 1 point. A bottle of Valentina hot sauce: 2 points.
The market is open to Wyandotte County residents, and shoppers get points they can spend per month or per week depending on their household size.
The space used to be a thrift store, which Cross-Lines closed during the pandemic. The team decided that turning the space into a market was a better use, Jones said. Produce is donated by local farms and purchased from Liberty Fruit Co., a regional produce distributor.
A market means Cross-Lines can provide free food that people want and minimize waste. The market also offers items relevant to a person’s culture. For instance, the market carries Hispanic food items like mole, beans and tajin seasoning.
“If we’re giving somebody peanut butter, macaroni and cheese … it’s not necessarily relevant to every culture’s dietary needs,” Jones said. “So we wanted to be very respectful and inclusive.”
Groundwork NRG is developing a market co-op for northeast Kansas City, Kansas, called Northeast Grocers. Moncure, the project coordinator, said there hasn’t been a grocery store in the area for three decades.
The team is currently engaging with community members about plans for the co-op, which will be located at 17th Street and Quindaro Avenue.
“I see, and also residents see … Northeast Grocers as a vehicle to nourish and feed the community in a way that is community-driven, community-reliant and community-owned, because that is the nature of cooperatives,” Moncure said.
Henderson is the president of Pride, the Kansas City, Kansas, chapter of the International Association of Black Professional Firefighters, which owns the building that will house Northeast Grocers. He’s been working on the project for the past four years.
He hopes Northeast Grocers can be an anchor for the community.
“Things that people own and that they feel a part of, they treat it and they take care of it a whole lot different when they’re not,” Henderson said.
This story was originally published in the Kansas City Beacon.