Grocery stores tend to be scarce in some of Milwaukee’s poorest neighborhoods.
People may have to travel miles to buy fresh produce, meat and dairy products, because they live in what’s known as a food desert.
The USDA defines a food desert as a low-income area where at least one-third of residents live more than a mile from the nearest big grocery store.
But efforts, such as the new Pete’s Fruit Market and a mobile market by Pick 'n Save, are helping to make fresh food available in areas that need it most.
The mobile market stops once a month at Industries for the Blind in West Allis. It’s a chance for visually impaired customers to have convenient access to healthy food, which can be a challenge if they don’t have transportation.
The market is a converted semi-trailer, with shelves of fresh fruit, vegetables, meat and dairy products.
Volunteers accompany shoppers from entrance to exit, telling them what’s available, putting food in their baskets and handling their bags.
Deborah Ambro-Crandell, who's visually impaired and works for Industries for the Blind, explains: "Transportation is our biggest challenge, but I think there are other areas where there just aren’t stores around. People don’t want to spend the gas money, or public transportation, so I think these mobile markets getting into places that maybe don’t have accessible, good whole foods for families...I think it’s fantastic."
The Fresh Picks market targets places like this, where shoppers might not be able to easily access grocery stores on their own and it visits food deserts, the low-income neighborhoods that don't have supermarkets nearby.
Sarah Kikkert, a spokeswoman for Hunger Task force, is very passionate about the mobile market: “I think it’s this type of solution that Milwaukee needs to continue supporting and thinking about moving forward because there’s no really other way for a lot of people -- these families, these elderly, the children, especially who live in these neighborhoods, to have access to healthy foods.”
Residents of Milwaukee’s Bronzeville neighborhood expressed similar sentiments when Pete’s Fruit Market opened north of downtown last month.
Many of the shoppers were already familiar with Pete’s store on the near south side. Neighbors like Alfrieda Johnson were grateful a grocery store was moving in, instead of one of the other types of businesses suggested for the location.
“We did not need a dollar store. We needed this store to be here with all this fresh food. It is just fantastic. I am so thrilled,” Johnson said.
She attended the store's grand opening. So did city health commissioner Bevan Baker. He says thanks to the store, the neighborhood no longer is considered a food desert.
“What it does now is to open up access to fresh fruits and vegetables and good food and it brings our community together," he said. "You can see the excitement you can hear it in people’s voices. I’m so happy that a food desert can’t be associated with this part of Bronzeville.”
Store owners and organizations such as the Hunger Task Force aren't alone in trying to reduce the number of food deserts in Milwaukee. In recent years, Common Council and County Board members also have pushed for solutions to the problem.