As of recently, East Palo Alto was officially declared a food desert. Formally defined as an area where a third of the residents live more than a mile away from a supermarket, food deserts contribute largely to the obesity epidemic and demonstrate the resource inequality in minority communities. Without access to relatively cheap, fresh produce, the neighborhood is soon overrun by convenient stores and fast food chains.
After reading several articles on East Palo Alto with varying perspectives, I interviewed Lila Mack, a student who developed a healthy cookbook for disadvantaged communities. Having talked to multiple people from East Palo Alto, Lila had really helpful insights into the main problems and needs. Many people in the community of East Palo Alto have immigrated from Mexico and other Latin American countries to work and earn money for their family. Many of these people are men whose families are still in their home country. Because cooking is typically a female responsibility in Hispanic cultures, it is difficult to motivate the residents to cook a meal after a tiring day of work, little experience cooking, and no accessible fresh food. In addition, the few grocery stores that do exist don’t have the traditional ingredients that are found in street markets in Mexico. This leads many people to resort to much more convenient fast food options and causes the community to enter a vicious cycle of bad eating habits.
Addressing the Issue
To solve this issue, I designed a grocery store/community garden to combat the food desert in East Palo Alto. Taking into account the feedback from the interview and steps in the design process, I created a set of requirements for the building. Firstly, the building needed to be more open air in order to feel more like a market and less like a grocery store. It also required some boundary between the market-like aspects and the refrigerated or temperature controlled places in the store. Shoppers needed access to more cultural foods and foods that are easier to make, take less time, and are relatively cheap. The adjacent structure to the store itself would be a community garden so light that could come into the grocery store will not be blocked by a higher building.
← An internal design that inspired me was the Sourced Grocers store by Whitespace in Bangkok, Thailand. The natural lighting coming in through the windows is amplified by the glass panels hanging from the ceiling. Also, the contrast between the wood and the dark tiles on the walls makes the store much more aesthetically appealing.
Also, Lila suggested looking at a location called the Milk Pail Market which is a semi-outdoor grocery store. I really like how the shape of the building interacts with the natural light to illuminate the inside of the store. I also like the flexible structure of the building which allows for adaptable spaces. →
One of my possible site locations is 1675 Bay Rd, East Palo Alto, CA 94303. This plot is 6.18 acres which is quite large for building a grocery store but could be great for a substantial community garden. The topography is very flat so there won’t be any problems with elevation or existing structures. I chose this location because it is fairly central to East Palo Alto so it is accessible to the residents of the city.
I began with simple charts with the required spaces in the store.
230 sq ft
1000 sq ft
natural light for daytime shopping and gardening
yellowish light for nighttime shopping and early morning produce
echo reduction from carts or other people
music? to make shopping more enjoyable
unloading dock near produce or corresponding item
garden near fresh produce
flexible indoor outdoor spaces
I then moved on to bubble diagrams to combine the functional uses with spacial applications.
From there, I decided that a study model and a daylight model would be most helpful because they allow me to visualize the basic shape and the way the building interacts with the landscape without being tied down to materials. Once I completed these models, I could see what revisions I could make to improve the design.
From the physical model, I moved on to a sketchup model where I could look at the interaction of objects and the circulation through the space. Unfortunately, I was unable to add the administrative part of the building to my sketchup model but I have the components that make up the shopping portion.
In the front section we see the small garden at the front of the store where fresh produce is grown.The garden section has a lot of exposure to light and has borders to allow movement alongside the the plants. Behind it is a produce stand, a few refrigerated sections, and shelves. The shelves are staggered in order to provide space for customers who are entering the queue to checkout and to make the space more open. They also are perpendicular to the stalls that let in natural light in order to maximize light entering the store. The floor is concrete, ideal for moving around shopping carts and maintaining a cool temperature.
The refrigerator section occupies the back space of the store to facilitate easier temperature control. The far corner is exposed to the least amount of natural light and is partially enclosed by the two side walls and one bathroom wall. As a transition between the produce section and the refrigerated section is a test kitchen where people can teach shoppers about cooking techniques, new ingredients, and interesting recipes.
Lastly, the stalls address the need that was brought up in the interview with Lila. By opening up the store and creating an environment similar to a street market, the open stalls change the ambiance of the grocery store to mimic a market in Mexico.
If you have any questions about food deserts, grocery stores, or would like to give input into my project, please leave a comment! I would love to continue to develop this idea and feedback would help immensely.