Watching Philly Grocery Shoppers Is Changing How Cities Build Supermarkets


Published in Next City, November 14 2016
Photography by Joshua Albert

Cassida Morris is caught between eras. Growing up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, she ate tomatoes off the vine and plucked apples for pie from her grandmother’s backyard. “We didn’t go to the store to buy produce,” she says, “because we grew our own.”

But when she moved to the city, got married and started a family on a limited income, it was a different story, a typical one: “You work, your kids go to school, I gotta feed you, but I’m not going to consider how to feed you nutritionally, because I’m stressed,” she recalls. “So you want chicken nuggets to be quiet? You can have chicken nuggets and French fries.” She tried to cook healthy for her children, but she definitely didn’t have the time to garden, and she knew something was missing. “So now you got guilt. Guilt and stress, because I know I should be feeding you a salad,” she says.

Today at 54, living in the Philadelphia neighborhood of Strawberry Mansion, Morris is thinking about how to eat more like her grandmother did. It started when she participated in her church’s annual Daniel Fast, abstaining for a month from meat, dairy, sweets and processed foods. Then she worked at a food pantry. Now she’s taken classes on juicing, on cooking with herbs, on diabetes prevention. She’s trying to be a role model for her two sons, grown now, and their six children.

But eating well on a fixed income, with a physical disability and no car, has made Morris’ grocery experience complicated. She prefers to shop at the Cousin’s Supermarket in South Kensington, but she only goes when she can get a ride. She walks to the Save-A-Lot near her home for staples, but its produce section is limited, most selections are processed, and it doesn’t have the rice cakes she likes. She buys those at Aldi. Twice a month, she takes the bus to Reading Terminal Market in Center City Philadelphia for “quick sale” produce that she slices and freezes for smoothies.

And, every now and then, Morris takes a 20-minute bus ride to a Fresh Grocer, 1.6 miles away near Temple University in North Philadelphia; it opened in 2009 thanks to a statewide program aimed at eliminating food deserts. A food desert is any low-income census tract where at least a third of residents live more than a half mile from a supermarket, as defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In 2004, Pennsylvania became the first state to create an incentive program focused on these underserved areas.

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