Eating healthy in a food desert: Mecklenburg leaders seek new solutions

Monday, April 6, 2020
Food Deserts
Jonathan McFadden

Mecklenburg County leaders are trying to find solutions for a worsening food crisis in the county’s poorest neighborhoods.

Nearly 15 percent of the county’s population lives in what the U.S. Department of Agriculture calls food deserts — low-income communities where most residents don’t have access to a full-service grocery store or supermarket carrying nutritious food. That figure exceeds the national average of 11 percent and North Carolina’s statewide average of 13 percent.

“Population density probably has a lot to do with” the higher number, said Mecklenburg County Public Health Director Gibbie Harris. “If you look at Mecklenburg County, it’s mostly city. In rural communities, people can have gardens. People need cars to get around. They can get to the grocery store.”

But that’s not reality for many living in the county’s low-income neighborhoods, where poverty, lack of transportation and race intersect with poor diets, health problems and gaps in resources. Despite spending $160 million last year to help feed needy families, the problem persists in Mecklenburg.

“When I hear stats (about food deserts), I know it’s true because I lived there,” said Ashanti Selassie, who manages an urban farm intended to fight food insecurity in east Charlotte. “I know what availability of food people have in the east, west, north and south of the city. I know what they don’t have access to.”

So does lifelong west Charlottean Brenda Campbell. When she was a little girl, she could walk to the grocery store to buy fresh fruit, meat and vegetables. Not anymore.

“Back in the day, we used to have a grocery store on this side of town,” said Campbell, 60. “Things change. The rooftops change. On the westside, there’s nothing but convenience stores or Dollar Generals. The food is limited; there’s no fresh meat, no fresh vegetables.”

That level of scarcity has drawn ire from county commissioners, who renewed talks about food deserts during the county’s January budget retreat. They mulled possible solutions, including whether offering economic incentives to grocery stores could sway them to set up shop in impoverished areas. 

A few months later, commission chair George Dunlap said county officials aren’t sure those direct incentives are a viable option.

“The likelihood of enticing a grocery store (to a low-income neighborhood) is not very good,” he said. “The grocery store chains are concerned about their bottom (line).”

“It’s not a simple matter of there’s poor people, so stores don’t want to locate there,” said Peter Zeiler, the county’s economic development director. “There are access issues, population density issues and, unfortunately, income issues, as well. The lower the wealth density in a neighborhood, the harder it is for a food store to open up.”

Officials now are looking to bolster community partnerships to make up the difference. For years, the county’s worked with nonprofits, churches and companies to feed families in food deserts. Yet, all those efforts — and all those millions of dollars — haven’t dented the problem. 

“No, it’s not enough,” Harris said. “We still have people who are hungry and are not getting the foods they need.”

Food deserts and grocery wars

The existence of food deserts in one of North Carolina’s wealthiest counties is nothing new. It continues to underscore the growing divide between the haves and the have-nots at the same time Charlotte’s grocery wars are intensifying

That dichotomy was front and center during the budget retreat, prompting a series of impassioned speeches from commissioners frustrated with major grocery stores overlooking less-affluent communities.

“I look at those apartments (uptown) and they put major food outlets in those places, yet they can’t come to poor people’s neighborhoods,” said Commissioner Vilma Leake, who represents District 2, parts of which are considered a food desert. 

“People can’t pay their property taxes. They’re being displaced. They can’t eat. It’s unacceptable,” said District 4 Commissioner Mark Jerrell. “The corporate community, those that profit from people in our community, have a responsibility to come to the table with us to discuss what their contribution will be to support people that are in the crescent.”

The “crescent” is a longstanding demographic pattern of Mecklenburg County’s higher-poverty neighborhoods to the west, east and north of uptown Charlotte. It’s also where officials say many can’t afford healthier foods.

“Whether it’s poverty, issues with chronic diseases, with HIV, with housing, if you look at the maps where these issues are highest in our community, they all look the same,” said Harris, the public health director. 

County data shows that 64 percent of adults in Mecklenburg are either overweight or obese, the highest concentration of whom live in the low-income communities just outside of uptown. Those same neighborhoods tend to have higher rates of poverty, low education attainment, chronic disease and death. Officials say the lack of nutritious food in these communities is one of the leading drivers of those negative outcomes. 

“In many ways, it links back to those socioeconomic factors that prevent people from being successful,” Harris said.

Davon Goodwin, left, is manager at the Sanhills AGInnovation Center. Photo: Nancy Pierce

[Read more: A 'crisis that's brewing': How this program plans to help NC farmers]

Some of those same factors, such as low wages and lack of transportation, prevent major grocery stores from opening in poor parts of the county.

“People who build grocery stores aren’t going to put them in a community where people cannot support that store,” Harris said. “Grocery store chains put their stores where they expect to have the foot traffic they need to be successful. That’s why you have a Publix going in right across the street from Harris Teeter. They don’t anticipate having that foot traffic in low-income communities.”

And grocery stores seldom profit off basic foodstuffs, such as bread, soup or canned corn, Zeiler said. That’s why they charge a premium for higher-end products more well-to-do shoppers will buy. 

Cash-strapped neighborhoods, Zeiler said, “are not going to be the ones buying the $12 small bottle of peanut oil.” 

Added Harris: “If you look at the cost of food, the things that are white are the things that are inexpensive: potatoes, rice, pasta, bread. How can we help families with costs when they can buy a 5-pound bag of potatoes for the same amount it costs them to buy one head of broccoli?”

Healthier foods on average cost about $1.50 more per day than less healthier food items, according to a 2013 study from Harvard University’s School of Public Health. Over the span of a year, that price point would increase food costs for one person by about $550. For families living on fixed or limited incomes, those costs are unsustainable. 

What can the county do?

If Mecklenburg County were to offer incentives to grocery stores, they’d likely be property tax rebates, subsidies for building operations or simply leasing land to retailers willing to build stores, said Zeiler, who stressed that the county’s primary role in community development  “is around real estate.” 

But even then, “it’s not a blanket solution,” he said. “Each neighborhood has its own specific reasons for not having access to a grocery. We can identify food deserts all day long. But getting into the nuance of why there is a food desert here and what is the feasible option for that area? It could be a millions of dollars problem.”

In 2019, the county spent $160 million on food and nutrition benefits for more than 50,000 families, most of that in the form of federal nutrition program benefits such as SNAP (commonly referred to as food stamps) and WIC (for mothers and children). Other measures they’ve taken include encouraging farmers markets to accept food stamps; partnering with food pantries to feed residents in crisis; partnering with local churches to plant orchards; managing 18 community gardens; and working with Atrium Health and Novant Health to operate a food pharmacy, where individuals can access certain foods they need to eat to address chronic illnesses.

Economic incentives are possible, Zeiler said, but not a panacea.

“Even if I was going to buy a piece of land and build a building for free and throw a grocer in there, it may or may not work,” he said. “That’s not to say it’s not a useful exercise and we shouldn’t be doing it. It’s just finding the magic formula of what the market barrier is in that specific (food) desert.”

Leaders continue to brainstorm. Zeiler wondered if the county could help subsidize food delivery to centralized locations residents can access by foot. He also posed the possibility of convincing grocery stores to tweak their prices in certain neighborhoods so they can make money off typically low-cost items.

“If the issue is food, then the question becomes how then can you get people to the food source if the source doesn’t come to the community,” said Dunlap. “I’ve heard a lot of different suggestions.”

Those suggestions include working with the local hospitals to subsidize bus or trolley rides that transport people to and from grocery stores, or incentivizing convenience store owners already running businesses in food deserts to sell healthier foods.

“I think it’s going to take getting some of the right people at the table to make a difference,” he said.

But no matter who’s sitting at the table, the county’s efforts to eradicate food deserts won’t work if it fails to understand the specific needs of each community, said Ralphine Caldwell, executive director of the Charlotte chapter of the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), which finances community development projects.

“If you don’t talk to the community and do the simplest amount of engagement, it really affects the outcome of your food initiative,” she said. “If you’ve got fruit and vegetables rotting on the shelves, you probably didn’t do the appropriate community engagement.”

No more waiting

For more than 40 years, neighbors in Charlotte’s West Boulevard corridor, a cluster of historically black neighborhoods, have asked for a grocery store. They’re tired of waiting.

That’s why they’re raising at least $10 million from private donors to start the Three Sisters Market, a community-run co-op grocery store that will offer fresh food and produce for a one-time, $100 membership fee.

The market, whose name pays homage to the legacy of women leaders in the community, “doesn’t have to reach those marginal price points you see in traditional grocery establishments,” said Rickey Hall, president of the West Boulevard Neighborhood Coalition. “It’s based on meeting community needs.”

That need is apparent. Today, residents without cars take buses and trains to the nearest Walmart or Harris Teeter, over an hour’s walk away. Limited transportation options force them to make critical choices about what they buy: processed bread and potato chips are easier to carry on a city bus than a bulk jar of olive oil and big bags of fresh produce.

All this is just west of uptown and north of South End, where breweries and restaurants line nearly every street.

“It’s reflective of Charlotte’s history of inclusion and exclusion,” Hall said. “The health of the community is measured by access, and healthy food is synonymous with healthcare access. It’s a quality of life issue.” 

And a race one. When Hall was growing up, the West Boulevard corridor had a grocery store and several mom-and-pop shops that sold fresh, affordable food. That changed as white families left the neighborhoods surrounding uptown for the suburbs, and government officials razed black neighborhoods in the name of urban renewal. 

Many black-owned businesses feeding their communities closed, leaving residents unable to move with an abundance of cheap, fast food joints, but very few healthy food options. Over the decades, neighbors lobbied to bring grocery stores back, but each attempt failed. 

Hall called the co-op a “community self-help initiative” that will keep neighbors healthy and food affordable. He hopes it helps stem gentrification in west Charlotte, where property taxes continue to increase and high-end eateries that outpace incomes continue to open. 

“We’re tired of trying to secure a store location for traditional retail establishments,” he said. “For too long, there’s been the thought and notion that someone had to come in and do for us. We said we are tired of people planning for us.

“We’re going to do for ourselves.”

Urban farm aims to alleviate food deserts in east Charlotte

Mecklenburg County leaders have discussed increasing support to local farmers to alleviate food insecurity. One nonprofit is already making it happen.

In east Charlotte, the Carolina Farm Trust is tilling land for the Urban Farm at Aldersgate, a 6.7-acre farm that will grow kale, mustard greens, tomatoes, cucumbers and more. It’ll also include an aquaponics garden, mobile kitchen, learning lab, beehives for pollination and a year-round farm stand selling produce from regional farmers.

“We want to use the Urban Farm at Aldersgate as proof-of-concept to build urban farms across the city,” said Zack Wyatt, the farm trust’s executive director. “Every affordable housing complex should have one.”

So far, the nonprofit has raised $50,000 and has started building the farm with plans to begin planting this month. It needs to raise an additional $224,000 to enhance the farm’s infrastructure.

The shortfall hasn’t stopped farm manager Ashanti Selassie from spreading compost, cutting bamboo and transporting plants on the swath of land he hopes will employ farmers and feed communities.

“People’s health and wellness decline every year because they don’t know what to eat,” Selassie said. “They don’t have access to certain things.”

Selassie believes most people are misinformed about food, which puts lower-income people at a greater disadvantage. “Lots of people are told that certain foods are healthy, but they’re not healthy for them in no way, shape or form,” he said. “I want people to know that growing your own food is attainable.”

Successful strategies

Cities and municipalities across the country have tried a variety of ideas to attack the food desert problem. Here are five of them.

Baldwin, Fla.: This town, with a population of about 1,430, opened its own town-run grocer when it’s only grocery store closed. 

Baltimore: Offers a virtual grocery store program allowing residents without close access to a grocery store to have their groceries delivered to a senior center, community center or library near their homes. 

Baton Rouge: The city partnered with a major credit union to offer low-interest loans to supermarkets, grocery stores and other fresh food providers planning to open in a low-income area in East Baton Rouge Parish.

Birmingham: This Alabama city created a $500,000 Healthy Food Fund that will offset the costs of opening grocery stores in parts of the city designated as food deserts.  

Jacksonville, Fla.: Created a $3 million economic development fund earmarked for healthy food affordability, educational and promotional programming.