EAM Artscope: June 2016
Erie’s Ethnic Markets
For many years the east side of Erie had no grocery stores. For the many residents without a car, their only options for food were gas stations and fast food restaurants. But thanks to the new American population, a range of ethnic markets is filling a community need.
Food deserts are created when there is no nutritionally valuable food available within walking distance in an urban area. While those with cars can easily drive to large supermarkets the poorest families have no access to healthy food. Ethnic food markets fill this void and also help New American populations hold onto their traditional foodways.
There are now at least eight ethnic markets on or near Parade Street that are run by former refugees from Iraq and Bhutan. They serve customers from every ethnic group, not just their own community. “They buy pita bread for sandwiches, ground beef, or sometimes just a drink,” said Harbi, the owner of Ishtar Grocery at 1106 Parade. He realized that Erie stores didn’t carry Iraqi products. “This is my first time [being a business owner]…We visited friends in Michigan that have a better selection of Arabic foods and we decided to go there and bring them here,” Harbi explained. (Michigan is home to over 300,000 Arabic-speakers from several nations and has become a nexus of Arab culture in the U.S.)
Erie resettles more refugees than almost every other city in Pennsylvania. From October 2015 to April 2016, Erie welcomed over 200 individuals. They are expected to be employed within a few months. Many of them find jobs working in these small refugee-owned businesses.
These markets are breathing life into otherwise vacant storefronts. These small businesses are growing as well. Kadhim of New Sara’s Market has two locations, just blocks away from each other. “There’s more chances for getting customers in my doors if I have two places.” he said. All of the owners plan on expanding their inventory to offer more international foods, and updating their coolers and shelving to display new product. Some even hope to remodel or purchase a bigger shop.
The markets do offer some American snack foods but unlike convenience stores, they don’t rely on sales from tobacco and soft drinks. Their stock in trade is their fresh produce, meats, and dry goods. For the Iraqi owned stores, goat, lamb, chicken, and other halal meats are their number one selling product. The Bhutanese owned markets have a large variety of fresh Asian vegetables, a huge assortment of dried legumes, and multiple varieties of rice.
Traditional meals made with authentic ingredients are often both inexpensive and healthy and the markets are helping Erie’s newest and poorest citizens financially, nutritionally, and culturally. The owners take great pride in this. “My main priority is that my customers are looking for something special that is not in a regular USA market. Most of this is important stuff and if they see something from their home country, they are happy and this is my happiness, to get them something that they want so that I may keep them as my customers,” said Kadhim.
Many Erieites have also discovered these markets and the tasty bits of culture they provide at prices competitive with large chain stores. The Erie Art Museum salutes our community’s New American entrepreneurs and their efforts in eradicating East Erie’s food deserts. Thanks to them, some of our most impoverished neighborhoods are now oases of delicious, locally owned culture!
• TEDxErie, January 2016