Okay, first things first: I’m going to give you the recipe for the delicious Spicy Veggie Lettuce Wraps pictured above, plus some general recommendations for sourcing healthy food at corner stores. But the larger issue that I created this post to highlight is that San Francisco residents can’t afford to be healthy anymore.
“But San Francisco is one of the most expensive places to live in the United States,” you say. “Silicon Valley and the tech industry have led the city into an age of unprecedented prosperity,” you say. “It doesn’t make sense,” you say. You’re right, it doesn’t make sense. But San Francisco’s innovation industry and resulting wealth is just one side of a drastic socio-economic inequality coin. On the other side, the descent of disadvantaged populations into poverty is accelerating.
(Lack of) access to healthy food is one of the ways in which the brutal divide between the haves and the have-nots in San Francisco is widening.
For lack of alternatives, people in San Francisco’s lowest-income neighborhoods often shop at convenience stores more likely to sell chips and cookies than spinach and sweet potatoes. Have you heard of the concept of a “food desert“? Food deserts are areas devoid of fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthful whole foods. The situation is so dire that several community-based organizations have partnered with the city itself to assist the corner stores in supplementing their typical offerings with fresh fruit and vegetables.
- Healthy Retail SF crafts a customized definition of healthy on a per store basis, creates an expert advisory group which then designs program structures and tools, and implements neighborhood-wide outreach events in partnership with store owners. Each participating store receives a tailored Individualized Development Plan that outlines activities, timelines, persons responsible and budget in three areas: business operations, physical changes to the store, and community engagement and marketing.
- The Tenderloin Healthy Corner Store Coalition (the “Tenderloin” is a district of San Francisco that suffers from an acute lack of fresh and healthy food options) specializes in empowering community members to meet the great need for neighborhood grocery stores. The Coalition supports activities by residents that increase access and availability to fresh healthy food, in particular supporting convenience store conversions to grocery stores through special grants and expert consultation.
- EatSF is a healthy food program providing low-income San Franciscans vouchers for free fruits and vegetables. The vouchers (redeemable at local markets) are provided to eligible residents through a network of community-based organizations, thereby promoting long-term health and wellness while fostering community and increasing the supply of fruit and vegetables at corner stores and other retail outlets in the underserved area of the city. Full disclosure: I am a communications and program implementation consultant with EatSF, however, my opinions are my own.
As a blogger working toward a future in which healthy food is sustainable and accessible for all, I felt a definite curiosity to experience the grocery options at San Francisco corner stores after learning so much about the efforts to improve their selection of fresh, healthy ingredients. What better way to find out than by rolling up my sleeves and crafting a recipe based on the selection of ingredients I source myself from participating corner stores?
Which is how I found myself in the Tenderloin on a bright weekday morning, headed to Amigo’s Market at the corner of Ellis and Leavenworth Street.
The market is tucked under residential units, and advertises discount groceries and fresh produce and meat. I won’t leave you in suspense, that’s exactly what they had. Inspired by some of their more unexpected options (hello, bird’s eye Thai chilies!) I picked out the ingredients for these Spicy Veggie Lettuce Wraps: a head of lettuce, a small purple cabbage, a carrot, a carton of mushrooms, a yellow onion, green onions, a sleeve of garlic bulbs, one knob of ginger, two limes, and the aforementioned chilies. My grand total?
Delighted with my haul, I hustled home and laid out all of the ingredients to photograph for a quality snapshot. I did remove some wilted outer leaves from the cabbage and head of lettuce. . . they looked a bit battered when I picked them out. This was the ONLY thing I did to improve the vegetables’ looks, since everything else was fully fresh, firm, and vibrant in color.
Before we get to the recipe, a few general guidelines (as promised) on navigating a corner store to find ingredients for healthy meals. Even if you’re fortunate enough to live to ample access to healthy food at farmers markets and grocery stores, corner stores can be a quick and convenient option if you remember some simple guidelines:
- Go meatless. Sometimes when “mystery meat” of uncertain origin and standards is all that’s on offer, it’s best for your health and the environment to simply skip it.
- Peel away the outer leaves/skin. If the fruit or vegetable seems otherwise firm and fresh, don’t be put off by ragged and wilted outer leaves, or blemished skin. Sometimes it’s a diamond in the rough, and can be a wonderful addition to your recipe after its battered outer layer has been removed and composted.
- Step outside your cuisine comfort zone. Corner stores can be a wonderful source of new-to-you ingredients featured in cuisines from faraway places. Use this as a reason to eat outside your comfort zone and experiment with an ingredient (or several) that doesn’t commonly find its way onto your plate.
I’m particularly proud of these Spicy Veggie Lettuce Wraps because they are created with vegetables sourced entirely from a corner store, and because they’re an example of what I strive for in the recipes I create for Fresh Planet Flavor: a balance of color, flavor, texture from healthy ingredients that come together in 30 minutes or less! #winning Which is why I titled this post How to Eat Like a Health Food Blogger. These are the kinds of recipes that I personally prefer.
- 1 tbsp sesame oil
- 1 onion, diced
- 1 bird’s eye (Thai) chili
- 8 oz mushrooms, chopped
- 1 carrot, grated
- 2 cloves of garlic, minced
- 1 inch piece of ginger, peeled and grated
- 1 tbsp wheat-free tamari (or coconut aminos, for a soy-free version)
- 1/4 tsp salt, or to taste
- 4 lettuce leaves
- 1/2 small purple cabbage, thinly-sliced
- Green onion
- Sesame seeds
- Lime juice
- Red chili flakes
- Heat the sesame oil in a medium skillet over medium-high heat. Add the diced onion, grated carrot, minced chili, and chopped mushrooms and cook, stirring occasionally, until the mushrooms have released their liquid and the onions are beginning to become translucent.
- Add the minced garlic and grated ginger. Cook, stirring, for 30 seconds until fragrant. Add the tamari and salt, stir to combine, then remove from the heat and allow to cool.
- Spoon the cooked vegetable mixture into the lettuce leaves, and top with raw purple cabbage to add back a bit of crunch. Finish with green onion, sesame seeds, a squeeze of lime, and red chili flakes (if you prefer additional heat)! Best served cold.