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What City Has in Store for Nearly 150,000 Residents Living in Food Deserts

Harvest Market offers organic produce, healthier fruits, vegetables, beverages, a juice bar and café as well as [organic and gluten free whole foods] on the hot bar. (Ameera Steward Photo, For The Birmingham Times)
By Ameera Steward and Erica Wright
The Birmingham Times

Nearly 150,000 Birmingham residents live in food deserts—and they’re fed up.

Wiley Short, president of the Spring Lake Neighborhood Association in East Birmingham, said the lack of healthy food options concerns him because of the distance he and many of his elderly neighbors are forced to travel for wholesome groceries.

“We have to go to Center Point, Trussville, or Fultondale—someplace that’s a distance away, [20 minutes], to get [affordable and nutritious food], unless we go to a farmer’s market or something like that,” he said.

Residents on the opposite side of the city also voiced some of the same concerns. Michelle Perkins, president of the North Pratt Neighborhood Association on the western side of town, said many of the residents in her area who want healthy food options must travel to Forestdale, which can take up to a half hour.

“A lot of our older residents can’t really get to the store because a lot of them don’t drive and are in assisted-living homes. The bus doesn’t run to Forestdale, so a lot of the times they have to find someone to take them to the store or go pick it up for them. I think we need [a healthy-food grocer] in our area, so [residents] could walk to it,” she said.

City officials say they are aware of the concerns and, more importantly, what statistics show.

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. Overall, 149,000 Birmingham residents live in a food desert.

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).

“Our team is focused on bringing healthy food to our communities,” said Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin. “We’re researching innovative models of food delivery and leveraging financing tools, [such as] Opportunity Zones, the Healthy Food Fund, and city incentives to build an effective strategy to better serve the people of Birmingham through access to affordable, healthy food.”

Last week, the Birmingham City Council established a Healthy Food Fund that will provide financial incentives for grocery stores looking to establish a foothold in Birmingham. Two weeks ago, the mayor proposed a new ordinance to combat the city’s food deserts by loosening regulations on mobile grocers and farmer’s markets, while limiting the spread of dollar stores in low-income neighborhoods.

City officials said they are focused on several short-term goals, including passing a health-foods ordinance; recruiting a grocery store with healthy options to the Five Points West area to replace the loss of a Winn-Dixie supermarket; and facilitating the transition of Village Market in East Lake that will help provide high-quality food in that part of the city.

Five Points West

Hattie Williams, Rising West Princeton Neighborhood Association President, said it’s important for the city to replace the Winn-Dixie that closed last year in Five Points West, forcing many residents to travel to Homewood or downtown Birmingham for nutritious food options.

“We all need healthy food [as we get older], and [a grocery store] would be convenient for all the elderly people that live in this neighborhood,” she said.

Josh Carpenter, Director of Innovation and Economic Opportunity for the city, said the now-closed Winn-Dixie was about 50,000 square feet, which would be large for a grocery store.

“We are actively working in and around the Five Points West area to recruit a grocery store … [and] trying to be as creative as we possibly can to backfill that area. That’s our short-term number-one priority,” he said.

Among the challenges of sustaining a grocer in the vacant space are the building’s size and location, Carpenter explained. Also, it’s difficult to operate a grocery store anywhere.

“The margins of nationally owned grocery stores are razor thin, some people estimate between a half of a percentage point and 2 percent,” he said. “That means any small thing, whether it’s theft or a destroyed crop that raises the cost of oranges, could really erode a grocery store’s ability to make a profit and keep stores open.”

Still, the mayor’s team has met with owners of the plaza where the Winn-Dixie was located and the Five Points West Merchants Association to discuss what they would like to see in that space.

“We think Opportunity Zones could be a big piece of this puzzle because they can lower the costs to build a new, smaller store that … could make a profit,” Carpenter said. “Obviously, we want to see something in that space, but … it’s hard to [sustain] a 50,000-square-foot grocery store.”

An Opportunity Zone is an economically-distressed community where new investments, under certain conditions, may be eligible for preferential tax treatment.

East Lake

William Harden, president of the Echo Highlands Neighborhood Association in East Birmingham, said more grocery options on his side of town would help the residents and the city.

“If you give us something we’re interested in having, we’d be able to support that, and … that money [would stay] in Birmingham, as opposed to being spread out over other municipalities,” he said.

Local grocer Jeff Gentry wants to keep those customers on the eastern side of town. He 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.

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.

Carpenter said the city was fortunate to keep the Village Market open and operating. He added that the city is “thrilled” about the new leadership: “We’re going to continue to help them grow and develop and make that business operate at the level the residents nearby need it to,” he said.

Online Deliveries

Adding to the challenges of keeping open and/or replacing grocery stores is online grocery store delivery, which poses a problem because “it’s difficult … if not impossible for someone who uses [electronic benefit transfer (EBT)] payments … to use the card online,” Carpenter said.

The USDA is running a few pilot programs, so “residents who have … EBT cards can use them online. Internet- and Birmingham-based delivery service Shipt would be a willing partner in that,” he said. “We’re just trying to figure out how to make it work.

“We have an all-out …, comprehensive approach. … [We’re] all-hands-on-deck. We’re actively recruiting brick-and-mortar stores. We’re actively pursuing partnerships, so we can potentially get EBT pilot [programs] and … online delivery. In the long-term, we would love to think through how we can help a [healthy grocery] chain relocate here.”

Click one of the links below to read more stories about food deserts and grocery stores. 

Fed Up: Neighborhood Leaders Demand Grocers With Healthy Food Options

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Harvest Market’s ‘critical’ role in Eastern Birmingham

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