Following news of the impending closure of Ahart’s Market, which is set to cease operations on April 30, the City of Bethlehem is partnering with the Kellyn Foundation to increase access to healthy foods on the South Side.
As a part of its Food Access Initiative, the Kellyn Foundation offers an Eat Real Food Mobile Market, which visits sites across Lehigh and Northampton counties weekly.
Through this new partnership and with financial assistance from the city’s Community Development Block Grant COVID-19 funds, Kellyn will be adding one to two days to its current Mobile Market schedule starting May 1.
According to a press release from Mayor Robert Donchez’s office, these additions to the current schedule will increase access to fresh, affordable produce for South Side residents while the city looks for a long-term replacement for Ahart’s. Staff of the Mobile Market will also provide customers with nutritional and cooking education, and family vouchers will be available for South Side residents.
Eric Ruth, co-founder and CEO of the Kellyn Foundation, said this partnership with the city was a natural choice for the foundation.
“We very likely would have ended up here even without the city asking us,” Ruth said. “Our whole mission has always been to help neighborhoods live healthier lives.”
The Mobile Market primarily offers locally sourced produce, when seasonally available, as well as some prepared meals and household staples. While these are helpful to Bethlehem residents, Ruth said the Mobile Market alone cannot replace a grocery store.
Even before Ahart’s announced its closure, the USDA listed Bethlehem as a food desert, meaning residents of the area have limited access to affordable and nutritious foods.
Kelly Allen, board chair of the Bethlehem Food Co-op, however, said Bethlehem should be looked at as a “food apartheid,” a term he credits to food activist Karen Washington, rather than a food desert.
“When we talk about this as a food apartheid, that makes us look at our food system at the intersection of geography, race and economy,” Allen said.
When an area like the South Side loses a grocery store, Ruth said the most vulnerable population is drastically affected in terms of food access. Whereas some Bethlehem residents can afford to get their groceries through other means, many shop at whatever store is most affordable and accessible.
Alicia Karner, director of community and economic development for the City of Bethlehem, said many South Side residents now do their grocery shopping at CVS or get meals at McDonald’s because it is cheap and convenient. However, she said these places do not have many healthy or fresh options.
The city recently sent out a survey to Bethlehem residents asking what they would like to see replace Ahart’s. As of now, Karner said most people are looking for a full-service grocery store that includes features like a deli and bakery.
Though the city is currently working to find a long-term solution that meets the needs of Bethlehem residents, Karner said it may be a while before a new grocery store opens.
“Introducing a grocery store takes a little bit of time,” Karner said. “Even if we had a grocer who agreed to go in right away, they would want to do renovations and some construction activity.”
Allen said members of the community are working hard to ensure Ahart’s is replaced with a grocery store that will serve both the wants and needs of Bethlehem residents.