By Je’Don Holloway Talley
For the Birmingham Times
Local grocer Jeff Gentry uses one word when asked the importance of providing healthy food options: “Critical.”
Gentry is part of an investment group that bought the East Lake Village Market from Western Market last month, keeping a store open that would have closed. Gentry has been clear about the kinds of food the store will offer and why.
“When you’re providing healthy food options, it goes … from the parents to the children; it affects your whole body, your mindset, your attitude, how kids function at school, how adults function at work,” he said. “I like to knock out [cookies] as much as the next person, but you have to have that balance.”
Sixty-nine percent of Birmingham’s population lives in a food desert and each City Council district has at least one U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)-designated food desert, according to the city.
A food desert is an area that “… [lacks] access to affordable fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat milk, and other foods that make up a full and healthy diet,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Overall, 149,000 Birmingham residents live in a food desert.
Gentry said he’s working with the city of Birmingham to help reduce the number of food deserts in and around underserved communities.
“I think folks living in these communities haven’t had much access to healthy food,” he said. “I think the majority of the population would buy healthy food if they had the opportunity to do so. That’s the premise of us opening up multiple retail locations.”
Gentry and his partners also own Hoover-based Organic Harvest, which will now operate under the new name Harvest Market and open a location downtown Birmingham at 1924 2nd Ave. N.
“We can open small stores like the one we have on 2nd Avenue or larger stores like Village Market,” he said.
Willie Speights, general manager at East Village Market and a Western Market veteran, said accessibility is a big step toward eradicating food deserts.
“Most of our people walk to our store and shop here [because of accessibility],” he said. “They shop here for convenience and location because they can get here with no problem. We’re a full-fledged grocery store. We sell everything: meat, produce, milk, bread, eggs. You can buy anything here. … The choice is really up to the customer.”
Speights said the owners are excited about the changes coming to the store.
“We’re planning to add more variety in produce to give people more healthy options [to choose from],” he said.
Asked what kinds of healthy foods his stores carry, Gentry said, “We have some healthier ice cream and healthier cakes. … We carry goat cheese for people who are lactose intolerant, vegan burgers for those who chose not to eat red meat or can’t have red meat.”
They carry items that have traceability, as well.
“When you turn [a product] over and look at the label, you’ll know what those ingredients are, and for the most part those ingredients will be available at our store,” said Gentry, a University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) alum, who added it helps that he buys from multiple national distributors.
“Since we’re buying products for multiple grocery stores, we’re able to get better buy-in on healthy products. We’re hoping that will allow us to implement some healthier alternatives at some of our stores. We’re going to at least make them available, so our customers will have access to healthier fruits, vegetables, snacks, and such.”
Those products will include options from smaller, local suppliers and local farmers, he said. In addition, Harvest Market stores will feature a juice bar and café, as well as [organic and gluten free whole foods] on the hot bar, in addition to a lot of organic fresh fruits and fresh vegetables.
“I think grocery stores are part of the community,” Gentry said. “[They’re] built on the community, and we want to make it an experience for our customers—and a positive one at that. We’re going to really get involved with the community.”
Another reason for getting involved: providing jobs.
“A lot of the employees that work at the stores live in those communities. You’ll run into folks from work or church,” said Gentry, adding that Harvest Market employs about 30.
“I think [neighborhood markets] absolutely enhance the community, creating jobs, a safe space for people to work, a place where people can have access to cool local new products and farmers,” he said.
Speights added, “We provide jobs for the neighborhood, opportunities for kids going to school, and a place to come and buy groceries in your own neighborhood. That’s what a neighborhood store is to me.”
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