Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Is Norristown a Food Desert?

I planned to do a Diary entry on the Temple University Food Assessment of Norristown that was presented at the Council Meeting last week. But I quickly realized after reading through their 46-page report, that one Diary entry isn't going to do the project justice. And frankly, I don't want to see this particular subject skimmed over, then forgotten. It's something we all ought to start having a dialogue about.

Today, I'll start with their first topic: transportation. Where are the supermarkets, grocers, etc., and can Norristown residents get to them?

Temple found that 20% of our households (about 2300 of them) report having no vehicle. 45% report having one vehicle. The rest have 2 or more. They don't cite where the 20% without cars live. The report seems to assume they live in higher density neighborhoods, or that they're spread evenly throughout the population (meaning there'd be more in higher density neighborhoods). Yet one of the more reliably vehicle-less clusters of people I know are at Rittenhouse Apartments, in the lower density North End.

If you're shopping for a family, even if they all come along to help carry, getting the groceries home without a car is a bigger problem that wasn't really addressed. Temple mentioned public transportation. Ever try to lug 3 or 4 grocery bags onto a bus? Forget about buying a sack of potatoes or a watermelon or anything else heavy. Yet, at the same time, Temple concluded that we had access to fresh produce because of our many neighborhood grocers.

We have 2 supermarkets: Thriftway at Dekalb and Oak, and Save-a-Lot in Astor Plaza on Markley St. across from Logan Square. I was surprised to find that the Temple presenters, even those that hang around town regularly, didn't know that the Save-a-Lot was open and hadn't bothered to check it out. They did, however, know it was coming. In the report, they say it is located in a "lower density region." Another quote: "Typically, larger supermarkets are sited where cars are required to access them, making expansive parking lots essential." This implies that Save-a-Lot is a newly-built supermarket, which it isn't. It made good reuse of a vacant building, and the parking lot was already there (and has been for more than 50 years). It's a new business within Norristown's borders (always welcome), and gives residents a place to get fresh meats (they cut them in store), and things like peanut butter and dairy at competitive prices.

Before they opened, the elderly residents of Rittenhouse were walking down to Family Dollar and paying $4 or more for a container of ice cream. They had to rely on relatives or whoever to take them out of town for meats, cereals, mayo, etc.

The report cites Plymouth Produce as a major store, and I'd agree with them. Besides produce, they sell extra amenities like lunchmeat. Still, a family can't purchase all their dietary needs there.

The Thiftway on Dekalb is used by people who walk there, I agree. However, if it had to rely on those customers alone, it would go out of business. The parking lot is nearly always full. They and the other businesses in that little center would benefit by maybe 30% more parking spaces. This isn't only about making sure people who walk can get their groceries, it's about keeping Norristown businesses open and thriving, too, which means inviting customers from other parts of town if they can get there (and 80% have cars).

Temple also placed the Norristown Farmers' Market on their map as a major food source, at least equal to Plymouth Produce, also making me wonder if they checked the market out. It's only open one day a week, during hours when most Norristown residents are working. They have a VERY limited selection of food, and prices are often above what you'd pay in the stores. They aren't located in a residential area—in fact, Downtown is probably the worse location for resident access. I love the idea of a Farmers' Market, but let's relook at it. Put it in a central location—what about the sidewalk outside the Library, in the geographic center of town?  Have it open on Saturdays. Get more farmers to come out so there's competition and therefore better pricing. Or find an indoor venue that would work and allow us to have the market in bad weather, and in spring and fall, when leafy and root veggies are at their very best.

Temple mentioned that organic food was hard to find in Norristown. They didn't seem to notice one thing that's very obvious to me—if you have a food allergy or health restriction, you MUST go outside of Norristown to do certain food shopping. Low-sodium options barely exist here. Residents who are lactose, gluten, casein or whatever-intolerant are probably not going to find the alternatives they need in Norristown. Even diabetics might have trouble finding low sugar options in our supermarkets.

So that's the first installment, what Temple had to say, and what I had to say about food shopping in Norristown. What does everyone else have to say?


  1. Unfortunately, I have to head out of town to grocery shop. My preference for organic and local drives me to Wegmans in KoP and up to the farmers markets in other townships. If I didn't have a car I would be screwed. It would be nice to see some better grocery options in town. Ironically, I thought, "but what about shoprite and Aldi and Bottom Dollar? Oh right. They're not in the borough." which means I have never really food shopped within Norristown.

  2. I enjoy the ability to shop in my community, I visited Thrift Way many times because their Meats are fresh and very priced to my pocket. As for other item I do notice a few nickel and dimes increase over Bottom Dollar where I do shopping a lot..As for Plymouth Produce I am there sometime twice a week to get my organic and fruits and occasional lunch meats they are fresh too. I have had no problem being on a fixed income to fit my needs and still support my community at the same time...

  3. I go to Plymouth Produce usually once a week and lately Save-a-Lot maybe twice a month, but I still need to go to Giant in East Norriton for my gluten-free bread, pastas, frozen foods, etc., low-sodium tuna, low-fat cheeses, quart-sized skim milk (A LOT of our households are single person, yet it's hard to find small servings in our markets). So most of my shopping $ go out of town. I do buy most of my produce in town though.

  4. Greater Norristown PAL started Norristown's first Community Garden, five years ago and it continues, thanks to Rachel Holler and Kenneth A. Fennal. The foundation was created by Sam Chronister and continued to be managed and prepared by the NAHS Students and Penn Christian Academent Students. This was managed by Mandy Kusher and Jackie Harris.

    In this Garden, fruits, herbs and vegetables are regularly grown and harvested. When this is done, they are donated to the Family House Women's Shelter and the Salvation Army of Norristown. This way, the produce is managed, harvested and donated by a Norristown source, by NAHS to two Norristown beneficiaries, both in Norristown.

    In addition, GNPAL along with the Food Trust, offers a 5-6 week Cooking Class for Adults and Families. This Cooking Class teached how to cook and prepare a healthy and nutricious meal.

    While this is a hidden secret, Norristown's first Community Garden has won the PHS Community Greening Award and as of this writing, 2nd Place in Norristown Garden Club's "Best Norristown Public Place Garden. I guess the Community Garden is staying a secret.

    1. Thanks for the comment, PAL. As I said, I'll be covering each aspect of the Temple Report and had already intended to blab about your garden in next week's segment about Urban Agriculture. I didn't know about the Cooking Class, though. Very cool. I'll be looking for notice of it.