Spotlight Exclusives

Lawmakers Eye Solutions for Food Deserts

Stell Simonton Stell Simonton, posted on

On a fresh spring morning at 7 a.m., Sabine Nad switches on the noisy engine of her 20-foot truck and rolls out of a Tuscaloosa, Ala., parking lot. She’s carrying more than 80 gallons of milk, bags of oranges and apples, boxes of lettuce, tortilla chips, bread, and even decorated sheet cakes — 5,000 pounds of food.

In the high cab of the truck, she bounces down state Route 69, an undulating two-lane highway bounded by forests and fields. She’s headed to Greensboro, a town of about 2,300, nearly an hour away in Hale County. Halfway along her route she passes Moundville, named for its Native-American mounds, and Junction Grocery, a little store with a gas pump outside.

“That’s the only store between Moundville and Greensboro,” Nad says. Despite its name, it’s not even a grocery store. Inside, wrapped in cellophane, are crackers, chips and peanuts. The convenience store also sells biscuits, hamburgers and hot dogs but little aside from bread and milk that could be considered nutritious. Filling that gap is what Nad is trying to help do – each weekday, she drives a truck full of groceries from the West Alabama Food Bank to residents in subsidized apartments and senior centers within an eight-county area in this impoverished swath of West Alabama.

The residents she serves are low income and low in access to real grocery stores that offer fresh fruits and vegetables in particular. Many are in what the U.S. Department of Agriculture has called food deserts, rural areas where people are 10 miles from a grocery store and urban areas where they are a mile away.

About 39 million people in the United States live in such areas, according to the Department of Agriculture, and the number is increasing. In response, a patchwork quilt of efforts has sprung up across the country to improve access to grocery stores and healthy food.

In March, the Healthy Food Access for All Americans Act was introduced in Congress to offer tax credits for grocery stores locating in food deserts.

”When I went out on the campaign trail in 2016… people kept talking about the need for grocery stores. The idea bubbled up in the district itself,” said Rep. Donald McEachin (D-VA), who introduced the bill in the House of Representatives in March along with Reps. Tim Ryan (D-OH),and Roger Marshall (R-KS).

And in Alabama, the mayor of Birmingham is launching a pushback against the dollar stores that have replaced grocery stores in so many areas, while also subsidizing full-service groceries.

However, not all food activists think incentives for grocery stores are the answer.

The long good-bye

Communities have been losing grocery stores for decades.

The growth of global trade led to an infusion of lower-priced goods into the country and strengthened large chains like Walmart, which killed off many local retailers. As manufacturing moved overseas, communities lost jobs. Incomes dropped and supermarkets no longer saw those communities as profitable. But a new type of retailer, the dollar store, was drawn to poorer areas, with a business model one economist described as betting on the presence of a permanent rural underclass. Dollar General and Family Dollar have spread in rural areas, but sell little to no fresh foods, although news reports in March said that Dollar General was beginning to add some produce in some stores.

About six years ago, Moundville, a community of several thousand like Greensboro, lost its grocery store, recalled City Clerk Carol Townsend.

“It’s really inconvenient,” she said. “If you want ingredients for a salad after work, you’ve got to drive a 20-mile round-trip to Tuscaloosa.”

People don’t cook as much as they used to, she said.

“My parents are a prime example.” she said. “We buy processed food.”

“You can’t easily get the ingredients to cook. You’ll just go get something frozen and throw it in the oven,” she said.

Moundville tried to lure a grocery store in 2016.

“We almost had one,” Townsend said. The city was going to provide $2.4 million to construct the building, she said. But cost estimates became higher and the deal fell through.

In theory, the Healthy Food Access for All Americans Act would address Moundville’s problem. It would allow a one-time 15 percent tax credit for grocery store or food bank construction in low-access areas. In order to qualify, at least 35 percent of items provided must be fresh poultry, dairy, produce, and deli products. Some mobile markets and farmers markets could get a 10 percent tax credit.

The bill has bipartisan support, and a companion bill was introduced in the Senate by Sens. Mark R. Warner (D-VA), Jerry Moran (R-KS), Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV), and Bob Casey (D-PA)

“I think it still has a lot of steam. It’s bipartisan and bicameral,” McEachin said. The House legislation, currently in committee, was introduced in 2017 without success.

Not everyone thinks the strategy is effective. Nathan Rosenberg, who co-authored the article Let Them Eat Kale: The Misplaced Narrative of Food Access in the Fordham University Urban Law Journal, argued for other policies.

The article cited a number of studies showing that proximity to a supermarket did not change shopping habits, and people did not buy a greater proportion of items considered healthy.

“The tax breaks offered by the Healthy Food Access for All Americans Act benefit the big grocery store chains … rather than the community it’s supposed to benefit,” Rosenberg writes.

He argues for “upstream policies” such as increasing the minimum wage, strengthening labor protections, and expanding the SNAP and free school lunch programs.

McEachin, however, is unfazed.

“My goal is to prevent the food deserts in my district and across the country. If big chain stores come in with good healthy food and take advantage of the tax credits so be it,” he said. They will still be providing healthy food that is needed, he said.

What Birmingham is doing

At the local level, about 70 miles northeast of Moundville, the city of Birmingham is mounting a multi-pronged effort to regain fresh food sellers.

“We have 69 percent of our residents living in USDA food deserts,” said Josh Carpenter, director of innovation and economic opportunity for the city of Birmingham.

In the decade since 2005, only two Alabama counties lost more grocery stores than Jefferson County, where Birmingham is located.

Birmingham’s Healthy Food Initiative would change zoning laws to incentivize supermarkets, farmers markets and urban gardeners, as well as experiment with online food orders for SNAP recipients.

Zoning changes would also reduce the spread of dollar stores.

“We can’t have certain organizations that prey on poor people in our city,” Mayor Randall Woodfin told the city council in February, according to Iron City Ink. “At some point — either through existing laws or laws we create — we are going to have to protect our people.”

Birmingham data management specialist Yuval Yossefy explained: “Any new dollar store that wants to be created in that [low food access] district needs to be a full mile away from a currently operating dollar store,” he said.

The  plan follows a model developed in Tulsa, Okla., which limited the density of dollar stores in the largely African-American North Tulsa area and incentivized full-service grocers to locate there.  Mesguite, Texas, passed a similar zoning ordinance.

Birmingham’s Healthy Food Initiative is expected to come up for city council vote in late May or early June, Carpenter said.

Little money, few jobs

After several stops, Sabine Nad pulls her food truck into a complex run by the Greensboro Housing Authority. She blasts the klaxon-sounding horn and people step out of their small brick duplexes onto the closely cropped green lawns.

Nad opens the back of the truck, climbs in and begins portioning groceries into individual food boxes. The food comes from large Tuscaloosa retailers who need to move it off their shelves as it nears or reaches its expiration date.

Nad created the mobile food pantry project at the West Alabama Food Bank, forging a one-woman link between supplier and consumer for food that would otherwise go to waste.

At the back of the truck, resident Tiffany Jones chats with neighbors as she waits for a box.

“My kids love it,” she says. Her four children range in age from 8 to 17.

“It usually comes at the worst time when my finances are low and helps push me to the next week,” she says.

After handing out boxes, Nad drives to Carriage Hills Apartments, a Greensboro complex for seniors and the disabled.

Manager Teressa Colburn, white-haired and blue-eyed, comes out, leaning on a walker. She’s in her 70s and has a bandage on her ankle. The food boxes are a big help, she says.

“So many people around here are out of work. We don’t have anything for them to do,” she says.

Colburn herself worked for 15 years at a sewing plant, Greensboro Apparel, for minimum wage. It closed in 2002, she said.

Nad is concerned about the people on her route. She says some make do on the smallest of incomes.

“I don’t know how they do it,” she says.

Stell Simonton is an independent journalist in Atlanta who frequently writes about youth issues for Youth Today. She has contributed to publications including the Christian Science Monitor, Washington Post and Al Jazeera America, and she was formerly a digital editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

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