Excerpts from “Closing the Food Gap”

From the Introduction

To enter the parking lot of any Hartford, Connecticut, supermarket in 1979 required a sharp, reckless turn into a poorly marked curb cut. If you came at it too fast to avoid a collision with the suicidal driver heading right at you, you would bottom out your car’s undercarriage on the lot’s steeply graded entrance. Once in the lot, Hollywood car-chase skills were essential to maneuver across a parking area that was strewn with broken glass, overturned shopping carts, and potholes deep enough to conceal a bushel basket. Since the white lines marking parking spaces were faded or nonexistent, you left your car wherever it suited you.

Once you got inside the store, the first thing you noticed was the smell. It wasn’t so much that “something has died” odor, but more the scent of something that rotted and was never fully cleaned up. When seasoned with a pinch of filth, marinated in gallons of heavily chlorinated disinfectant, and allowed to ferment over many years, the store released a heady aroma that brought tears to the eyes of men stronger than I.

Crunchy sounds emanated from the floor as your shoes crushed imperceptible bits of grit and unswept residue whose origins had long since been forgotten. The black and white floor tiles were discolored, unwaxed, and marred at irregular intervals by jagged brown stains that were forever one with the tiles.

Granted, these were pre-Whole Foods Market days. The supermarket industry did not yet have the technology that gives today’s stores the soft, warm glow of a tastefully decorated living room. Instead, the humming neon bulbs, shielded by yellowed plastic coverings, cast a sickly pallor over the shoppers, the staff, and, worst of all, the food. The iceberg lettuce, already suffering from a 3,000-mile journey by truck, looked like the victims of a mass beheading. The rest of the produce case, from mushy apples to brown bananas, displayed a similar lack of life. A stroll down the meat aisle was as appealing as a slaughterhouse tour at the end of a busy day. Small pools of blood that had leaked from hamburger and chicken packages dotted the surfaces of the white enamel meat cases, the blood at times indistinguishable from the rust that discolored the chipped veneer. The atmosphere did not encourage a leisurely appreciation of food, nor did you feel like engaging in more intimate acts of product selection such as touching, squeezing, or sniffing. The fear of prolonging the unpleasantness made “grab and go” the prevailing modus operandi.

It didn’t take too many trips to this sort of market before I was sufficiently motivated to go to a suburban grocery store. I was lucky; I owned a working automobile. Up to 60 percent of the residents in Hartford’s low-income neighborhoods did not (at that time 24 percent of the city’s population lived below the poverty level; 20 years later, it would climb to 31 percent). Nor, as I would find out later, did the city’s public transportation routes go to the suburban supermarkets…

Besides offering a cleaner and generally more inspiring shopping environment, the suburban store had another point in its favor: it was cheaper. While not every item in the suburban store was priced lower than in the city stores, I soon found that I was probably spending 10 to 15 percent less for my weekly grocery shopping than I had been in Hartford. This proved to be true even for chains that still operated stores in both the city and the suburbs: the suburban unit had lower prices than its city cousin. How could this be? I wondered. The chain bought from the same wholesale suppliers, the stores had roughly the same pay and staffing structures, and they were only a few miles apart.

As it turned out, my revelations as a new resident of Hartford elicited not much more than a knowing sigh from colleagues and neighbors. The fact that city stores were inferior to suburban ones was nothing new to them. They had been watching the slow but steady abandonment of the city by supermarkets for ten years. “Yes,” I was told on many occasions during my first year in the city, “the supermarkets have abandoned Hartford, and the poor, who can’t get to the suburbs, pay more.” “Supermarket abandonment” and “the poor pay more” became part of the lexicon of the organization I had come to lead, the Hartford Food System, and for many years to come, this prevailing understanding defined the food gap.


The corn don’t grow so good around the edges, so this year I ain’t planting any edges.

– Anonymous 80-year old Connecticut farmer

When my old farmer friend explained his corn planting method to me, I of course thought he was pulling my leg. But as time passed I began to wonder if his remark was a parable spoken by a crusty old fellow known as much for his mischief as his wisdom. My meditation led me to think that our understanding of communities, people, food, and health are always bringing us up to some kind of edge — we want to know what’s out there, how to push them, master them, or take away their roughness. As individuals we want to control the edges in our lives that are just out of reach or always in flux. I find myself at times compelled by a fervent hope that I might be healthier, happier, skinnier, or wealthier if I could unravel the mysteries that govern those dark outer limits of my soul. Sometimes we even merge our edges with those of another, which of course eliminates one set of edges but creates a whole set of new ones. In other words, the dance with edges can go on forever and may never satisfy the seeker. They may taunt or tease, occasionally illuminate or suggest, but like the bubble from a child’s plastic wand, they always explode when grasped.

Unlike the farmer who decided to avoid the unproductive edges of his life by simply not tending to them, some people have striven continuously to make their edges flourish by pushing them ever outward. This is the quest that I believe is undertaken by a growing number of Americans, who, for the last 20 years or more, have been seeking, among other things, better food and healthier, more satisfying lifestyles.

Ironically, their quest is shared by an entirely different group of people whose lives operate under a much less fortunate set of circumstances. Unlike the affluent and well educated, the edges of these people are not expanding, glowing, or presenting limitless opportunities. For these people, their edges are atrophying, their choices narrowing, and their control eroding. Their edges do not demarcate a place from which to explore unknown territory or embark on new adventures, but instead form a boundary that can rarely be crossed, and a prison wall that cannot be scaled.

Starting in the late 1980s, Hartford’s food landscape began the final act of its steady and sickening transformation. As the supermarkets packed up their wares and moved to the suburbs, they left behind a vacuum that was soon filled by the bottom-feeders of America’s food chain — shiny new fast food restaurants and gas station mini-marts. As a result, the city’s citizens went from being underfed to overfed in matter of 10 years.

At first glance, given the city’s high poverty rates, cheap fast food should be a blessing. If there are no supermarkets within easy reach, then people should be grateful for the clean, well-lit places that proffer nicely packaged, brand named merchandise, the thinking went. But in fact, such establishments thrive in areas of poverty and low education. While they presumably serve a community’s immediate needs for calories, they actually prey upon those who are weakened by insufficient money, choice, and knowledge. As a result of these factors, Hartford’s major food problem shifted from hunger to heart disease, diabetes and obesity. In light of the soaring rates of diet-related diseases, across the nation as well as in Hartford, the high prevalence of unhealthy food outlets became a serious public health issue.

Read: Closing the Food Gap: Resetting the Table in the Land of Plenty