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Photo Story: On the frontlines in bringing healthy food options to Tenderloin

Food justice advocate John McCormick, 26, stands in front of the Unity mural in his office at the Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation on Leavenworth Street and Golden Gate Avenue. The TNDC office serves as a gathering place for community meetings. (Photo by Felix Uribe / CatchLight Local Fellow)

John McCormick works to better lives in San Francisco neighborhood

Bringing healthy food into the Tenderloin neighborhood is McCormick’s main focus, but he also co-facilitates a food justice academy, helped start a cooking class with Tenderloin residents and works on traffic safety issues. (Photo by Felix Uribe / CatchLight Local Fellow). 

Working in the Tenderloin can be tough at times, but on-site visits to stores that are a part of the food justice program bring light moments. Here McCormick laughs with a resident and store owner. (Photo by Felix Uribe / CatchLight Local Fellow) 

McCormick walks into the Young-Ellis liquor store, a partner in the food justice program. Young-Ellis, on the corner of Ellis and Jones streets, is in the heart of what many consider to be one of the rougher parts of the neighborhood due to the proliferation of homeless services that share the block. (Photo by Felix Uribe  / CatchLight Local Fellow)

The Young-Ellis liquor store does offer some fresh produce along with the regular junk food items like potato chips and dip. (Photo by Felix Uribe  / CatchLight Local Fellow)

“It’s not an accident that your corner store is stocked with junk food and not healthy food,” McCormick says. Here he strategizes with a store owner on better ways to highlight the healthy food options in his shop. (Photo by Felix Uribe  / CatchLight Local Fellow)

John McCormick spends four days a week drifting in and out of corner stores in San Francisco’s notorious Tenderloin neighborhood.

The lanky 26-year-old stalks aisles of canned food, past coolers of beer and shelves packed with liquor of every conceivable description.

He casts a practiced eye down rows of instant soups, sugary snacks and pre-packaged meals looking for the opportunity to make a sea change in the way some of the city’s poorest residents are fed.

Limited access to healthy foods in neighborhoods of color and poor neighborhoods is problematic for many reasons, McCormick said. “It’s not an accident that your corner stores are stocked with junk food and not healthy food. People are making a ton of money off of that.”

McCormick’s job with the Tenderloin Healthy Corner Store Coalition puts him squarely on the frontlines of a struggle to bring equity to the neighborhood’s dinner tables and lunch boxes.

It’s a struggle that, at its heart, is for the Tenderloin’s long-term survival — for the ability of people to live healthy lives in a city where for years gentrification and displacement have devastated communities of color.

The coalition’s strategy is simple: to develop partnerships with local residents and the city to identify popular stores and recruit the owners to their cause.

“If (the owners) want to be part of the coalition, they sign a formal agreement with us. It’s like a contract,” McCormick said. “They have to reduce tobacco signage, alcohol signage, increase healthy cereals. They have to get two types of whole wheat bread. They have to get a whole bunch of healthy beverages.”

In return, the store owners are given access to business consultants, new refrigeration units for fresh produce and a “food justice leader” who helps them live up to the coalition’s aspirations.

“We want store owners to put sliced fruit at the front of the register, healthy vegetables at the front of the register, so it’s not just grab-and-go crap, it’s grab-and-go good for you,” McCormick said.

In another effort to make the neighborhood better, McCormick works with the Tenderloin People’s Congress on traffic safety issues.

After an older woman and a young boy were hit by cars in the same intersection within a few weeks of each other, the neighborhood rallied together to make key changes to several streets.

“The community has taken a real active step in doing something about traffic safety and making the neighborhoods in the Tenderloin as safe as Nob Hill and the Marina neighborhoods,” McCormick said.

School zone speed limit signs are going up and the police have come out to ticket speeders, he said.

The neighborhood is also asking for raised crosswalks and increased traffic enforcement, among other things.

“The lives of people in the Tenderloin matter just as much as the people in Nob Hill and the Marina and they shouldn’t be treated any differently,” McCormick said.

Food for thought:

• The Tenderloin neighborhood has an older and more ethnically diverse population than San Francisco as a whole.
• The neighborhood is home to a greater percentage of black/African American residents and roughly a third of residents speak English “less than very well.”
• The Tenderloin is home to a significant portion of the city’s homeless population.
• Of those who are housed, roughly a third pay 50 percent or more of their income in rent.
• While there is not a full-service supermarket in the neighborhood, there are a number of small groceries and almost 60 percent of all food retailers accept CalFresh benefits.
• Poverty, trauma, and hazardous living conditions have led to poor health outcomes for many Tenderloin residents.
• Substance use disorder is one of the most pressing health issues for the neighborhood.

Source: San Francisco Department of Public Health/Environmental Health memo “San Francisco’s Tenderloin Neighborhood: Neighborhood Conditions & Health Status,” Sept. 2, 2016.

The Bay City News Foundation, with support from PolicyLink, is excited to partner with CatchLight Local on this project, given our shared interest in telling stories about how inequality plays out in the Bay Area. We are currently producing a series of data-based stories and aim to develop more visual packages like this one in the months ahead. CatchLight Local is a new visual storytelling initiative working to engage visual journalism at the local level, in partnership with The GroundTruth Project and with the support of The Kresge Foundation. It connects talented visual storytellers directly with newsrooms, including the Bay City News Foundation.