July 1, 2014 in Features, Food & Drink, Oshkosh

By Paul Van Auken

“Very depressing.” That is how Elizabeth Barron described her feelings about the grocery store landscape in Oshkosh after arriving last summer from Boston, which she called an organic food “mecca.”

“I think I actually broke down in the store a bit on my first trip to Pick ‘n Save,” Barron said.

Not only was it hard to find the types of food she was used to, but she was also surprised by other realities of the local food system. “Cost of living is supposed to be cheaper here, but it’s actually not, at least in terms of organic food,” Barron said. “There isn’t much selection and what is available is expensive.”

After about a year in town, she has now adjusted and figured out how to get most of what she needs, at places like Festival Foods and NDC, but wishes the prices were better.

Further, as a resident of Oshkosh’s central city (the Menominee South neighborhood on the east side), Barron finds herself far from any supermarket, as the closest (Piggly Wiggly) is nearly two miles from her house, while her preferred store (Festival Foods) is over four miles away, on Oshkosh’s west side.

Barron is not alone in feeling frustrated by the grocery situation in Oshkosh, and she alludes to two distinct but related problems it poses for many: the limited supply and high cost of organic, local, and nutritious foods, and the inconvenient location of the major grocery outlets that are found here.

Both issues create barriers to health and social equity and are hallmarks of a widespread phenomenon that has garnered increased attention in the U.S. in recent years.

Welcome to the Desert

The 2008 Farm Bill defined a food desert as an “area in the United States with limited access to affordable and nutritious food, particularly such an area composed of predominantly lower income neighborhoods and communities.”

There is disagreement over precisely what these terms mean, but according to a recent report by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the bottom line is “that some consumers have difficulty accessing food retailers that offer affordable and nutritious food.”

This report goes on to argue that “the ease or difficulty in getting to a food retailer depends on the location of the store in relationship to the consumer and the consumer’s travel patterns, the consumer’s individual characteristics (e.g., income, car ownership, disability status), and neighborhood characteristics (e.g., the availability of public transportation, availability of sidewalks, and crime patterns in the area).”

The USDA has also developed some widely accepted, if not universally agreed upon, measures of the food desert concept. According to the USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS), a low-income census tract (the U.S. Census Bureau’s unit of analysis closest to the concept of neighborhood) is one that has a poverty rate of 20% or greater, or—if, like Oshkosh, it is in a metropolitan area—has a median family income less than or equal to 80% of the median for the metropolitan area.

In the USDA’s original definition of a food desert, low access relates to distance from a supermarket, and for urban areas like Oshkosh, this means living one mile or more from a major food store. In the U.S., about 70% of the urban population is within 1 mile of a supermarket, but overall, an estimated 18.3 million Americans in low-income and low-access census tracts were far enough from a supermarket in 2010 that they lived in a food desert. Oshkosh has one large tract that meets the original definition, an area that includes UWO and the neighborhoods around it (shown in green on the map).

Because of the low-density, sprawled-out way we have designed our cities, our car-centered culture, and limited public transportation options, access to a private vehicle is also critical to one’s ability to obtain food in most places in the U.S. For many Americans, buying groceries is a minor inconvenience, with the average travel time (15 minutes) being roughly how long it takes Barron to drive to Festival. The USDA report, however, indicates that people living in low-income areas with limited access spend significantly more time (19.5 minutes) traveling to grocery stores, and this average includes people who drive, while using public transportation to shop can take much longer.

According to the ERS, a tract has low vehicle availability if more than 100 of its households report having no vehicle available and are more than half a mile from the nearest supermarket. Overall, 8.8% of all housing units in the U.S. don’t have a vehicle, and 4.2% of all housing units are at least half a mile from a store and without a vehicle. In Oshkosh, when low vehicle access is added to the equation, two additional census tracts (shown in yellow on the map) are considered food deserts. Together, these tracts in the heart of Oshkosh’s central city create a large contiguous food desert area in which a substantial number of residents are low-income, live far the nearest supermarket, and have low vehicle access.

According to an oft-cited study by sociologists Troy Blanchard and Thomas Lyson, “The retail distribution of food is a central concern…Simply put, if U.S…retail food sales activity among supermarkets and supercenter stores (hybrid stores offering groceries and discount merchandise) becomes concentrated within limited geographic areas…persons outside of these retail centers become isolated from convenient access to low cost, quality food. The remaining choices for these residents, such as small convenience stores, gas stations, and restaurants, offer few prospects for the maintenance of a quality diet.”

As in many U.S. cities, Oshkosh’s supermarkets and other major food stores are all on the edges of the city and clustered along a major highway, including Wal-Mart, which sells the most groceries of any store in the world. The food desert is in the center of a doughnut-like ring around central Oshkosh that emerges based upon the location of existing markets (the blue ovals added to the map).

Life within it can be downright depressing, as noted by Barron, and like that proverbial doughnut, it can also be very physically unhealthy. According to the USDA report, “Increases in obesity and diet-related diseases are major public health problems. These problems may be worse in some U.S. communities because access to affordable and nutritious foods is difficult.” In fact, research has demonstrated a correlation between distance traveled to food stores and body-mass index.

At a recent panel discussion at the Oshkosh Public Library, Affinity Health System Nutrition Educator Julia Salomón attributed our local problems with obesity and related diseases largely to our culture and built environment, which create significant structural barriers to healthy living, such as discouraging walking and encouraging the consumption of unhealthy convenience foods.

As a professor at UWO with her own vehicle, Barron has been able to adjust and get most of the food she desires, so the main issue with her grocery shopping is the inconvenience. For those without a vehicle, it can be a greater challenge.

“It’s a problem, of course,” said Diane Popowski, while holding her bike at recent downtown farmers’ market. She continued with a laugh, “I’m also 70, so my legs are going.”

“We have a wonderful bus and cab service, but you’re limited in what you can bring, so it takes a significant amount of time to feed myself and my pets.” But, she noted, “If it were that difficult, I might just get a car.”

Others can’t afford to. In Oshkosh’s food desert (comprised of census tracts 5, 7, and 11)—home to nearly one-quarter of the city’s entire population—40% of the people live below the poverty line.

Janine Wright lives in the Middle Village neighborhood in tract 5. Many of her neighbors are low-income and do not have cars, so she and her husband often give rides to the Pick ‘n Save located a mile and a half north on Jackson St.

“One of the joys of living within the central city area is that we can walk to almost everything,” said Wright. “Yes, we have two cars, but most weekends they sit because we walk wherever we want to go.”

Oshkosh is not New York City, where research shows that 72% of its residents live within a five-minute walk of a grocery store, or even Milwaukee; while a large food desert on its northwest side encouraged urban farming pioneer Will Allen to start Growing Power there, 29% of the population can walk five minutes or less to a grocery store (the same percentage as in Portland). Such stats were not available for Oshkosh at the time of this writing, but it seems safe to assume that they would not compare favorably.

“Right now the only grocery type stores (within walking distance) are Family Dollar and NDC,” said Wright. “Family Dollar does the best it can, and does that well. NDC also does a good job of offering nutritional products, especially with the expansion.”

According to Wright, “Our real problem is fresh produce. Neither does that well. The summer months we are blessed with the farmers market, but the winter is a different story. I have the luxury of taking my car to Pick ‘n Save if I need fresh produce, but there are many families in my neighborhood that cannot say that.”

“Please don’t tell me they can simply take the bus,” said Wright. “That is not a simple ride, especially with children, when it can be a real pain in the ass.”

It wasn’t always like this in Oshkosh.

From a Grocery on Many Corners, to a Few on the Edges

Until the 1970s, local people generally shopped at the scores of small- and mid-sized groceries found throughout the city.

In a 2010 article in The Northwestern, Dan Radig, a member of the Oshkosh Memorabilia Club, cited his own research which showed that there were 50 to 60 buildings on the south side alone that housed about 300 or so “mom and pop” groceries for about 120 years through 1978.

Local historian Ron La Point reminisced about the many corner stores in the south side of his childhood in his July 2013 SCENE column. “It was one of the neighborhood fixtures, a place not often experienced anymore, where the grocer personally waited on each customer and you waited your turn.”

According to La Point, “My mother did her weekly grocery shopping on Fridays at Kroger’s, a south side supermarket, if their advertised specials competed favorably with Krambo’s and the A&P, downtown stores…The fill-ins: the loaf of bread, the quart of milk, the pound of butter, the ring of bologna, the items a family needed to carry them through to the next Friday were bought during the week at the corner grocer.”

Radig noted that there were a relatively smaller number of corner groceries on the north side of the river, perhaps due to a concentration of markets on Main Street.

Tom Wrchota is co-owner of Cattleana Ranch, a grass-fed, “beyond organic” beef operation near Omro, but grew up on Oshkosh’s north side. He offered these observations about the changes he has witnessed:

My housing for the first couple years of life (late 1940s to early 1950s) was located in an upper flat above my grandpa Wrchota’s grocery store on the north west side of New York Ave. and Main St. Right next to our store was Mueller’s Meat Market. From the New York corner, going south along Main St. to Merritt Ave., then east to the Lake Winnebago (approx. 1.5 square miles), I remember 8 neighborhood grocery stores, at least 3 small meat markets, a small bakery…

Later, I lived on Bowen St., just south of New York Ave. (in the early 1950s to 1970). Since fresh fruits and vegetables were expensive in the grocery stores, and only available during the growing season, we ate many grown in our gardens. During winter months we greatly appreciated canned products, they were quite expensive and not as tasty. Remember, back in the 1950s and 1960s, a larger portion of a family’s household income went for food—about 20%, and now it’s closer to 10%. We had very small refrigerators in our homes, with very small freezer space, so we frequently walked to the nearby grocery store during the week, to supply our day’s meals.

During this period…it was not uncommon to have a steer and/or a hog being raised out at a nearby family farm, for a town family’s needs…Of course, most bought small amounts of meat from the grocery on a weekly basis. Almost all of the meats came from local farmers, and were processed in multiple butcher shops (at least two in the 1.5 square miles about us). Lots of the seasonal produce was also grown locally. Each small grocery store seemed to have its own business connection to a local grower to supply their store’s vegetables and fruits.

Then, the beef that local people consumed was all basically grass-fed, even at the corner stores, not due to a demand for sustainable food but “because that’s just how it was done then.” But, Wrchota continued, “By the late 1960s, things seemed to start changing quite quickly, when it came to smaller grocery stores going out of business. The larger Piggly Wiggly stores (one out on Bowen St. And Murdock Ave.) had much greater freezer and refrigeration space, and large parking lots to accommodate large numbers of shoppers, who now needed/wanted to drive to the larger store with more food selections.”

La Point lamented that none of the corner groceries remain today. “They simply could not compete with the prices, the selection, the variety of the larger food stores. So they went the way of the horse and buggy, and black and white TV.”

The Park Plaza Mall opened in 1970 in downtown Oshkosh on the north shore of the Fox River. One of its early anchors was a Kohl’s grocery store, which was located in the space that now houses Becket’s Restaurant (named for the renowned architect who designed the mall).

“After three years of living in Latin America,” said Wrchota, “I came back to our community in 1973, with most of the small grocery stores gone (or about to be), a food system that relied on food from far away places, and our pork and beef mostly coming from large packing plants that were in our state.” Finally, he noted that, “Since the 1970s, even more dramatic changes have occurred to our food systems, and our citizens’ connection to it.”

Kohl’s closed in the early 1980s, and Oshkosh lost its only downtown supermarket. When the Cub Foods on Witzel (now the UWO Campus Services Center building) shut its doors in 2003, the food desert was born.

But why did it happen? According to sociologists Blanchard and Lyson, “The creation of food deserts in the U.S. has occurred gradually (since the 1970s). The impetus for the shift from a large number of widely dispersed small scale local grocers to a concentration of supermarkets and supercenters into a limited geographic area has been fueled by the globalization of food production and distribution resulting in a handful of corporations controlling the majority of sales.”

Blanchard and Lyson further argue in their study that, “Globalization allows supermarket and supercenter chains to purchase large quantities of food from suppliers in order to sell at lower prices. The buying power possessed by large retail chains, such as Wal-Mart, Target…and others, provides these corporations a distinct advantage over smaller chains and ‘mom and pop’ grocers…(and) generates declines in the number of small retail establishments and retail employees.”

This doesn’t mean, of course, that no food is available in areas like Oshkosh’s food desert. In fact, according to Blanchard and Lyson, “in the U.S., the proliferation of convenience stores and gas stations ensure that some type of food is accessible to almost all residents.” Oshkosh has many convenience stores, along with a number of Asian food stores and a Latino grocery, and in some ways, these places fill a role similar to that of the mom and pop shop of the past. Interestingly, some former corner grocery sites are now convenience stores, as is the case for the BP on Merritt Ave., the one nearest to Elizabeth Barron’s house.

“However, the quality and pricing of food products,” write Blanchard and Lyson, “varies dramatically. Consumers purchasing food at a convenience store pay a premium for access to food products,” which is supported by recent research in Oshkosh by UW-Extension Agent Chris Kniep. “Additionally,” argue Blanchard and Lyson, “consumers choose from a smaller variety of food products that may not be suitable for the maintenance of a healthy diet,” a statement unlikely to be disputed by…anyone who ever has shopped in a typical American convenience store.

But many local residents seem to be fed up with this situation, and some have started to take matters into their own hands.

The Early Shoots

One is Dani Stolley, who trained under Will Allen before co-founding Growing Oshkosh in 2012. She serves as the president and driving force of this innovative urban farm located adjacent to the Hooper Building and river near downtown Oshkosh. Along with growing soil (through intensive composting), educating people, planting school gardens and producing food in its own hoop houses and raised beds, Growing Oshkosh has been selling its shoots and other produce at the Oshkosh Saturday Farmers’ Market (OSFM) and to local restaurants.

It will soon be doing even more: “while it’s not exactly downtown, Growing Oshkosh’s new office, year-round growing facility and farm store at 530 Bay Shore Drive, will be open for business in July and feature its famous shoots, microgreens, herbs, vegetables and flowers, as well as other items to help others grow their own nutritious foods, like worm castings, worm tea and organic compost.”

Stolley is excited about being part of what she considers a local food movement. “Having lived here all my life, I can honestly say, downtown Oshkosh, and the riverfront, have never been more alive, more vibrant, and to be honest, more hopeful,” said Stolley. “The (OSFM) is absolutely spectacular, evolving in a short amount of time from a 10-vendor, 5-minute walk around the City Hall parking lot, to a full-on, closed Main Street festival.”

The OSFM is the undisputed crown jewel of the movement. The market was initially launched with a handful of vendors in Riverside Park in 1994, moving to several other downtown locations and growing modestly to 20-30 vendors over the next decade. In 2011, with the leadership of OSFM managers Dennis and Carleen Leatherman and at the urging of Becket’s owners Kris and Sarrah Larson, the market shifted to several blocks of North Main Street, which are indeed closed each Saturday morning from June to October. The move has been a tremendous success, with an estimated 10,000-12,000 people visiting the 130 local food and craft vendors each week, helping OSFM be named the 44th best market in the U.S. An indoor winter farmers’ market has been held the past two years as well.

“One of the things that we’ve noticed over the past five years or so is the ever-growing public desire for better nutrition sources,” said Dennis Leatherman. “When we took over the Market the customer base consisted mostly of older folks who had grown up with home gardens; and young, college educated folks who were wanting healthier food for their families. Today, it seems like everyone has learned the advantages of locally grown organic products.”

Leatherman continued, “We were lucky enough to have been part of a Wisconsin study to test the viability of using Quest/EBT Cards (formerly Food Stamps) at Farmers’ Markets. The test was a resounding success and today our food vendors are averaging $400-$500 a day in sales to this segment of the population, who just four years ago were unable shop at any Farmers’ Market.” To Leatherman, this shows that the movement is not an elitist one.

“Furthermore,” added Stolley, “with the rise in local food popularity, the downtown area is going from a Food Desert, to a Food Plaza! We’re starting to see more—and expanded—local food stores downtown, like Nutrition Discount Center, a new local meat and cheese market, and the coming of the Oshkosh Food Co-op, as well as restaurants featuring local food, like Becket’s and Gardina’s.”

NDC has operated in downtown Oshkosh since 2005, and underwent a move and significant expansion to 457 Main St. in 2012. While its niche is in vitamins, supplements, natural health products, and home brewing supplies, NDC also offers an array of grocery items, emphasizing local and organic foods.

According to owner Jon Krasselt, “We’ve been in the new location for almost 18 months and have noticed a major increase in our food based clientele. This increase has put us in the position to expand once again. Our major plans are just starting to come to fruition. By the end of the year we will double our grocery sections. This will be done by moving our brewing section to the second floor and opening the entire north half (about 2000 square feet) of the store up to grocery. We also have big plans to add an exciting new element to our store that has been overall missing from the Main Street area.”

The downtown foodscape clearly has momentum, and the future may look even brighter.

New Life in the Food Desert

SCENE has covered the Oshkosh Food Co-op’s effort to create a community-owned grocery store in the central city for the past couple years. The group was officially incorporated as a cooperative business with the State of Wisconsin last June. After the season’s first outdoor farmers’ market on June 7, the Co-op celebrated the recruitment of its 100th founding member (a “true believer” purchasing a $180 household member share) with a group photo in matching blue “The Future is Local” t-shirts and a screening of the documentary Food for Change at the Time Community Theater.

It will now use the capital raised from its members and a significant grant from the Chancellor’s Office at UWO to fund an in-depth market and feasibility study to determine the best location and business plan for what the Co-op envisions as a modern, full-scale grocery store emphasizing organic, local, and sustainably-grown food, open to all, but owned and controlled by its members.

Bridgette Weber, a recent environmental studies graduate of UWO, has led the effort since it began in 2011 and served as the Co-op’s president since its incorporation. She recently offered these reflections on how this effort began, what co-ops are, and what the Oshkosh version may look like:

There were a few different issues in the backs of people’s minds: there isn’t enough access to organic and natural food options, we have amazing small farms around us that could provide these foods, and the city is lacking a central community hub. All three seemed to fit perfectly into the food co-op model for a grocery store.

Co-ops generally offer all kinds of groceries but focus on offering products that many conventional stores may not carry. They generally provide more options that are local, organic, sustainably raised or grown and focus on the needs of the community. In the U.S. there are over 180 co-ops with over 50 start-up co-ops like ours in the works. Wisconsin has a large co-op presence, with food co-ops in Madison, Milwaukee, La Crosse, Stevens Point, Sheboygan, Viroqua, and many more.

A food co-op is a grocery store owned and operated by the members that own it. A member equals one vote in a co-op, and members are encouraged to vote at annual meetings and use their voice to shape the co-op. Co-ops are democratically run by the members through a board of directors. The board then guides the decisions of the general manager of the store.

Our vision is a full service, one-stop-shop grocery store that is filled with options from local farmers and producers that avoid harmful chemicals. Anyone will be able to shop there, whether members or not, but members will have additional benefits. We also want to work closely with our food pantry and programs like SNAP, as we don’t believe that living healthy should be a privilege, and so are looking for ways to bridge the income gap locally. Our vision is also for diverse members of the community to join with us to create programs, workshops, and activities that cater to their interests and values. Our goal is to build community and offer holistic options to an underserved part of Oshkosh.

Downtown is an obvious choice for us because it is accessible by bus line, it is situated in the food desert and is centrally located, which is generally something you don’t find with conventional grocers; they are situated on the edges of town to be visibly seen off the highway and to accommodate suburban development. Our mission is focused on increasing prosperity from the center out.

We think the store will succeed downtown because of our focus on community and democratic participation. I think we will succeed because it is also the right time. Our farmers’ market is highly successful and people are catching on to the benefits of buying local and supporting each other and our neighbors. We all want to belong and feel connected, and co-ops are an avenue to bring connections and work together for a common goal. It is appealing to be a member and consumer of a co-op because you know the store is operating partly for your individual benefit, and we think that is really special. How often do you walk into a store and say, ‘I own this place’? The ownership is what allows for the focus on community and not profits.

I am excited to see what can be tackled once the store is open. Food justice is something that is close to my heart, and I would love to see the co-op become a driving force in taking steps to make organic and local foods accessible and affordable for anyone.

If successful, the Co-op will likely not be the only additional grocery store in downtown Oshkosh.

Becket’s co-owner Kris Larson recently announced that he and his partners will soon launch Ski’s Meat Market at 502 N. Main St., adjacent to Winnebago Bicycle in the building known as the Wagner Opera House. To add an additional bit of full circularity to this story, Larson claims that, “Ski’s will be located in the exact site where the original owner, Captain William Wagner, once operated a grocery store, in 1880 or so.”

Larson is opening Ski’s—along with his wife Sarrah, Becket’s partner Mike Bukarma, and Jason and Janine Faught—because “we love downtown Oshkosh (as we live there, work there, work to make it a better place, etc.) and we felt that others who live in the central city should not have to travel as far as they do to buy fresh local food.”

“It will be very much a throwback grocery and butcher,” continued Larson. “Specialty meats cut and aged in house, brats made in house, fresh seafood, Wisconsin cheeses, deli goods, dry goods, fresh produce, craft beer and fun wines.”

Those familiar with Becket’s might not be surprised about the new venture, but perhaps that it is a franchise. “Typically we are not franchise folks,” said Larson, “but we were very impressed with the recipes and relationships that Ski’s had in place…and they are wonderful people with many similar ethics as ours…so partnering with another Wisconsin company seemed to fit great with our ideas.”

“The first Ski’s is in Stevens Point, soon to be opening also in Wausau and Green Bay as well,” continued Larson. “Ours will be a bit different than the others as they are typically more focused on just specialty goods…to better serve our location we will be more of a full grocery than others.”

Larson is also clearly bullish about downtown Oshkosh. “We think the retail landscape of downtown is improving rapidly,” he said, “and we think Ski’s fills a much, and long needed place for a centrally located grocery.”

Will it all Take Root?

Elizabeth Barron is a founding member of the Co-op. “It is something I strongly believe in,” Barron said, “and when it was clear that there is a need for co-op here and that the effort needed people like me to invest in order for it to happen, it was a no-brainer.” But, she cautioned, people have to support it.

Some are skeptical that there is enough of a market for the Co-op on its own, with the development of Ski’s and continued expansion of NDC casting additional doubt on its potential for success.

Weber and fellow Co-op board members, such as Stephanie Gyldenvand and Nicole Waltemath, however, are undeterred. They believe that the Co-op will succeed because of the uniqueness of the co-op model and the great need for a better local food system; there is plenty of space to be filled in the center of that proverbial doughnut.

They further argue that additional downtown grocery offerings and the niches each business will occupy will create new synergies that strengthen the entire foodscape. This idea was seconded by Larson, who also noted that he was a member of multiple co-ops in Madison before moving back to his hometown to start Becket’s.

Gyldenvand remains a member of Madison’s Willy St. Co-op, one of the state’s largest co-op groceries, and regularly shops there when her work brings her to the capital. “I plan ahead,” she said, “deciding what things I need to get from which co-op and the other good food stores in the same area. I want to be able to do that here.”

Waltemath agreed, noting, “The needs of the community and addressing our food desert will only be further served by having more than one downtown grocery option. Providing a choice to the downtown shopper will ensure that prices are kept competitive and reasonable.”

She continued, “The downtown area also has somewhat of a ‘walk to it’ or ‘bike to it’ culture. For those that shop for their meals daily or have restricted access to transportation, multiple locations will serve more people. You’ll more easily be able to walk or bike for your bag of groceries in an area of Oshkosh where options are currently limited.”

Finally, Waltemath argued that, “more options for our community can only help to better it.”

It will be interesting to see whether she is right, as Oshkosh’s food desert continues to breed new life. ν

Paul Van Auken is a sociology and environmental studies professor at UWO with a vested interest in this issue as a member of the Oshkosh Food Co-op board of directors, a regular at Becket’s, frequent shopper at NDC, and general supporter of local food and the downtown scene.