Grocery & Deli Is Shining Model of Food Equity Partnership Amid Pandemic

Families living at or below the poverty level were fretting. Governor Mike DeWine had issued a stay-at-home order. But their worry wasn’t just because of the multiplying COVID-19 cases. Being able to get nutritious food would be more difficult for the substantial number of families who relied on free school lunches and other community meal programs for their children to eat healthy meals.

Supply fell as companies shut down operations and workers were sent home. Shelves at grocery stores stood bare. Prices rose. Public transportation felt unsafe. Already-food-insecure parents wondered where they would get their next meal.

Cincinnati Children’s and other members of the All Children Thrive Learning Network heard the unease in the voices of families and community leaders. Priorities shifted. Work began. Shoulder-to-shoulder with neighbors, they would transform our local food system and improve access for neighborhoods most in need.

“We decided on the aim of bringing emergency food within one mile of every child in Cincinnati at distribution sites that were open at least three days a week during that time,” said Carley Riley, MD, Cincinnati Children’s lead for the Well-being with Community Team, All Children Thrive.

Our quality improvement and data specialists, in partnership with retail data scientists from 84.51°, mapped child poverty rates and the distribution of food through public schools and other sites during the stay-at-home orders. The team wanted to know where there were gaps between what children needed and what was available to them in their neighborhoods. Data told the story of the food distribution system and the equity gap exacerbated by the pandemic. Emergency food stakeholders pivoted to distribute to the under-resourced areas.

“We started to imagine then, this might be ripe for a learning network approach and began to socialize the idea of a larger shared aim among all of us through the pandemic that could build a different foundation for how we work together around food,” said Riley.

A new goal was set. Members agreed to work together to increase food security by 10 percent over a one-year period in three pilot neighborhoods: Avondale, East Price Hill and Lower Price Hill.

Shared data would serve as the guide to know if and how we were making a difference.

Learning Network, Neighborhood on Parallel Paths

Enter the System to Achieve Food Equity or SAFE—a subnetwork of All Children Thrive made up of people and organizations seeking food access solutions from neighbors interested in leading change for their neighborhoods and using data and improvement science to learn.

SAFE sought to build on dialogue between neighborhoods and food organizations in a way that shared power with the community members themselves and started the “Shark Tank” project. Much like you would see on the TV show, community members and organizations in Avondale, East Price Hill and Lower Price Hill were invited to pitch their ideas to improve food security. With funding from Zero Hunger Zero Waste, selected recipients would receive grant funds to test their problem-solving ideas.

Neighbors in Lower Price Hill got the memo. It matched up with their efforts already in motion to reopen Meiser’s Grocery & Deli, a mainstay of the community for over 50 years. The doors had been shuttered since 2017, leaving residents with nowhere for miles to get affordable, healthy food—a hot topic among neighbors eager to lead the charge to change that fact.

“It left a real hole in the community, not only for food access, but also as a social and community hub, where people would see each other outside their homes,” said Reba Hennessey, president of Your Store of the Queen City, the non-profit operating arm of Meiser’s, founded by and for Lower Price Hill neighbors with a goal to not only serve their community but to share food strategy resources with others citywide.

All Children Thrive Cincinnati Learning Network

The All Children Thrive Learning Network is an innovative, city-wide collaborative that includes families, community members, social agencies, educators and healthcare providers. It works to identify and address major disparities in health and well-being, and improve the quality, effectiveness and availability of care and support to ensure that Cincinnati’s 66,000 children are the healthiest in the nation. Network successes include:

  • Improving infant mortality and prematurity by transforming prenatal care
  • Reducing excess days spent in the hospital
  • Increasing the number of young children receiving all preventive services by age 5
  • Supporting children reading proficiently or better by third grade.

The network’s focus on work with community partners from now through 2033 includes efforts to reduce food insecurity and so much more.

Backing Community-Driven Change

The gathering of concerned neighbors grew into the more formalized Neighborhood Action Team. The team had been facilitating conversations about food access and what neighbors wanted from a grocery store, with support from nonprofit partners Community Matters, UC Med and AmeriCorps, when the Greater Cincinnati Regional Food Policy Council connected the group with SAFE.

Lower Price Hill resident Marisha Davis was a part of the talks, describing the life of many living in a food desert—the $20 grocery budget, reduced by 25 percent to pay for bus fare; the food pantry with limited hours that competed with work and bus schedules; hopes of getting all the essentials for a complete meal in one trip.

Re-opening the once family-owned Meiser’s as a nonprofit grocery presented a real opportunity to lessen the burden on neighbors and meet needs unmet by food pantries. Neighbors pictured a future of their own making with expanded store hours, fresh produce, culturally appropriate and favorite brands that made them feel good about what they were feeding their family, and a commitment to hire and train residents of Lower Price Hill. It also represented food sustainability, with control over the market rooted in community leadership. Davis is now the deli lead at Meiser’s, open five days a week.

Meanwhile, the community development corporation, Price Hill Will, had purchased and was stabilizing the store site for a new grocery store to be operated by Lower Price Hill neighbors through Your Store of the Queen City.

The first Shark Tank dollars backed the community endeavors to get Meiser’s doors back open. It would become a profound opportunity for SAFE to learn alongside neighbors and help support a neighborhood-driven solution.

“It wasn't until the pandemic that it became clear what our role in improving food security and food equity could be. It has been an extraordinary journey from March 2020 to now for me and our team, bringing ourselves, our servant leadership to figure out how we contribute to sustainable, transformative solutions so that all children within Cincinnati have the food that they need to really learn, grow and thrive,” said Riley.

Laying a Foundation for Transformation

Meiser’s Grocery & Deli opened last November and sells a variety of affordable and free foods and health and beauty items. It has filled a void and stimulated food-to-table conversations in Lower Price Hill that are inspiring new and rediscovered traditions around cooking with fresh fruits and vegetables after years without.

Chit chat about the creamy mash potato recipe a neighbor made for dinner can be overheard as others reach for a 5-pound bag of potatoes.

As a non-profit, the store runs on donations and a pay-what-you-can model for produce.

“We can turn over 700 pounds of watermelon in a single day,” said Hennessey. Produce tops the most sought-after items at the store, she stated as she looks at a series of charts showing the store’s consistent growth trajectory.

With data support from Cincinnati Children’s, Hennessey knows what the most popular products are, when people are shopping, the balance of free to discounted foods supplied. It’s debunking the myth with hard numbers that families in food insecure neighborhoods don’t have access to fresh produce because they don’t want access. “The most frequent conversations we have throughout each day are about what fruits and vegetables we carry, when they’re delivered, how they pair with family meal plans, and reassuring overjoyed families that—yes—most of our fruits and vegetables are available for free,” added Hennessey.

Cincinnati Children’s also helped set up funding and data tracking to pilot the first quarter of the grocer’s rewards program, Meiser’s Green Giveaways. Instead of receiving a discount, like Kroger Plus, shoppers get donated items just by signing up and with any purchase. Shoppers can get a family meal from La Soupe, childcare, and health and beauty items—all for free. Additionally, the store’s Produce Perks program matches any Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) food stamp purchase with a $5 coupon for specialty fruits and vegetables.

Six months of using SAFE’s data processing reveals that Meiser’s distributes nearly half of their products for free to families. Information like this is key for the grocer to pull resources to meet family’s needs as inflation and food costs continue to escalate.

Closing the Meal Gap

From efforts led by 84.51° data scientist Charles Hoffman and data provided by food organizations, SAFE has determined the number of meals needed in a neighborhood given the number of households, poverty level and the number of meals provided by income, school systems, charitable organizations or SNAP. Self-reported data on food insecurity from households is another data point the team is building to get a real-time pulse on the need. It could lead to an even larger population-based data infrastructure for other family and community priorities.

“We cannot yet say, ‘aha,’ we figured it out. This is what did it,” said Riley. We have created a different environment to seek solutions and change by distributing decision-making and resources into the hands of the people with lived experience, listening deeply about what would make a difference and wrapping support around it to learn.

The visualization of the data over time will help the team to understand and plan for sustainability, so the pilot neighborhoods can share with other communities eager to achieve similar goals. In true learning network style, all the different stakeholders share what’s happening in their part of the system. Where is support needed? Where is there success? What are opportunities to improve?

“We talk at Cincinnati Children's about being the best at getting better,” said Riley. “Our team feels like we have been able to bring some of that into this community space in humble support of what is possible through the work of extraordinary people who are really committed to improving hunger, food security and nutrition security here in Cincinnati.”

SAFE Stakeholders

  • 84.51°
  • Cincinnati Public Library
  • Cincinnati Public School
  • City Office of Environment & Sustainability
  • City Council
  • Community Voices Community Advisory Board
  • Freestore Foodbank
  • Green Umbrella
  • Hamilton County Recycling and Solid Waste
  • Kroger/Zero Hunger Zero Waste
  • La Soupe
  • The Health Collaborative
  • Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation
  • UMC Food Ministry
  • University of Cincinnati
  • University of Louisville
  • Your Store of the Queen City

SAFE Goals by September 2022

  • Develop a publicly available data dashboard on the food security status of children and families in three Cincinnati neighborhoods: Avondale, East Price Hill, Lower Price Hill
  • Establish an early learning network of community organizations, community members and families
  • Improve childhood food security in three Cincinnati neighborhoods to find solutions to test and spread

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