Every Friday morning, Betty Crymes heads to the lobby of her senior residence with bags in hand and waits for the $4 weekly shuttle that will ferry her five miles to the ShopRite in Brooklawn.
Like many of her carless neighbors in Camden - who ride the shuttle, take two buses to get to the city's only large supermarket, or pay someone to drive them to a suburban store - Crymes needs a full day to get basic provisions.
The nine-square-mile city, home to nearly 80,000, has only one chain grocery - a Pathmark at the southeast edge of town - and few midsize independent groceries.
For years, community activists and politicians have tried to lure other food chains to Camden. But those that showed interest have pulled out at the last minute.
Their reluctance may be based on the number of consumers they expect and their disposable incomes, said Carol Kaufman-Scarborough, a Rutgers-Camden marketing professor. "It's really [about] getting the critical mass."
Developers say they are confident a grocery will be part of the mixed-use Haddon Avenue Transit Village, set to break ground in Camden on the border with Collingswood in mid-2012. The location, at the White Horse Pike intersection, is easily accessible to a wide variety of consumers.
But even with enactment of legislation - and at least one bill pending - designed to facilitate supermarket construction in urban areas, the developers have not secured a signed lease.
"We're at the mercy of the corner stores, and they are too damn high," said Mangaliso Davis, a North Camden resident and longtime gadfly.
Residents also complain that the little stores often do not carry fresh food, and that some are hangouts or fronts for drug dealers.
Last year, the last time Crymes set foot in a corner store, she had to push through the drug dealers who blocked the entrance, the feisty 81-year-old widow said.
The acute shortage of supermarkets has landed parts of Camden on the list of the country's worst food deserts - defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as low-income urban areas in which at least a third of residents live more than a mile from a supermarket that does at least $2 million in annual sales.
Areas of downtown, North Camden, and Cramer Hill were labeled food deserts by the department this year. Nutrition and poverty experts have linked the lack of food options to an increased risk of obesity, diabetes, and other health problems.
Neikia DeJesus lives in the middle of North Camden. Getting fresh food for her family of four, which includes a 1- and 9-year-old, is a challenge.
About once a month, DeJesus pays a relative to drive her to Sam's Club in Cinnaminson, where she loads up on frozen vegetables and meats. In addition to a ride, she must arrange for her sister in Pennsauken to baby-sit.
In the summer, DeJesus walks to the farmer's markets downtown. She has learned to avoid her neighborhood's 19 corner stores.
"I don't even know how [they] exist. [They] have nothing," she says of the stores.
State Sen. Donald Norcross (D., Camden) has sponsored the Fresh Food Access Act, which has passed the Senate and awaits a vote in the Assembly. Under the bill, 5 percent of tax revenue from businesses in an Urban Enterprise Zone, such as Camden, would go into a fund for loans and grants designed to get quality groceries into food deserts. The money would be used primarily to build stores.
Tax revenue from UEZ businesses used to stay local, going toward projects in the zones, but Gov. Christie has redirected the tax revenue to the state's general fund.
"One of the largest challenges is the rate of poverty," Norcross said, referring to the reluctance of stores to establish branches in Camden. And with suburban supermarkets less than three miles away, he said, grocery executives doubt that non-Camden residents would shop in the city.
Christie this year signed a bill, also sponsored by Norcross, that allows developers who put $50 million or more into a mixed-use transit-hub project to apply for tax credits of up to 100 percent of their investment. The bill is intended to lure new businesses, including groceries.
Community leaders and developers of the Haddon Avenue Transit Village, one of nine Urban Transit Hubs in the state, hope the site will become home to Camden's first new grocery in 30 years.
The project has been in the works since 2008, when the former Camden Greater Partnership was given a $50,000 grant to come up with a plan to revitalize 15 acres of former industrial space between Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital and the Ferry Avenue PATCO Station.
The $100 million development calls for 40,000 square feet of office space, about 400 housing units, a 50,000-square-foot grocery, and a 700-space garage.
At an October meeting of Camden's Economic Recovery Board, a $500,000 grant was awarded to the Cooper's Ferry Partnership to fund the design and engineering of the infrastructure.
The Fresh Grocer grocery chain, based in Drexel Hill, was named a likely tenant. It was almost a done deal, officials said at the meeting.
A week later, a Fresh Grocer spokeswoman said only that the company was "looking into the opportunity."
In mid-December, private developer Randy Cherkas of Grapevine Development, which is working with Cooper's Ferry, was back to talking to other grocery chains.
The project could break ground without the grocery lease, Cooper's Ferry president Dave Foster said, noting that there is nothing in the tax credits that requires a market. But the intent is to have a grocery as an anchor, he said.
Residents of Faison Mews, just over a mile away, say they would be thrilled to shop at a transit village market if it were reasonably priced.
"That would be an exercise walk," said resident Mary Taylor, 67, whose sister drives her to suburban grocery stores.
She doesn't take the Friday shuttle to the ShopRite in Brooklawn because she "doesn't need a tour of Camden," Taylor said. The bus, partially funded through the Senior Citizens United Community Services of Camden County, makes stops at numerous elder residences.
Some people who walk to the Pathmark on Mount Ephraim Avenue say that its prices can be higher than those of suburban stores and that options, particularly for produce, are more limited.
Donna Martinez, 52, lives in Morgan Village and is unemployed while she completes her associate degree. Because she can't afford to pay for gas, she invested in a sturdy grocery cart and walks less than a mile to Pathmark two or three times per week. But she takes her long shopping list to the suburbs about once a month.
To address the scarcity of fresh food in the city, several nonprofits have engaged residents in gardening.
Camden has 116 community gardens and 25 more are planned. They provide produce for about 10 percent of the population, said Domenic Vitiello, a University of Pennsylvania professor who has researched urban agriculture in Philadelphia, Camden, and Newark.
"It's quite impactful in combating hunger and poverty," said Vitiello, who added that Camden's Adopt-a-Lot program turned many vacant parcels into useful gardens.
Mike Devlin, who founded the Camden City Garden Club with his wife in 1985, said the increase in community gardens was mostly driven by the economy.
But people still need protein and other essentials not grown in a garden, such as milk and bread.
"People are just not eating properly," Devlin said. "It is a crisis."