Mobile grocer aims to alleviate ‘food desert’ in Southeast Raleigh

aweigl@newsobserver.comFebruary 23, 2014 

— On Saturday afternoon, 9-year-old Danielle Griffin got a lesson in identifying fresh vegetables at a mobile produce stand in Southeast Raleigh.

“Do you know what this is?” asked Demetrius Hunter, who runs Grocers on Wheels, holding up an eggplant.

“Purple squash?” asked Danielle, who was there with her mother and stepfather, Antonya and Leonard Windham. Leonard Windham, 50, is trying to introduce more fresh produce into the family’s diet. He’s become the family cook since the couple married last month and has introduced his stepdaughter to green beans, peas and collards.

“I thought I didn’t like collard greens,” Danielle recalled. “I said ‘Yum.’ I had to get my own bowl.”

Grocers on Wheels is part of efforts to bring more healthy food to areas called food deserts, or areas where residents have to travel a mile or more to find a store carrying a variety of fresh, healthy food. The lack of availability of healthy food, with accompanying health risks, has gotten the attention of the General Assembly, where a committee on the issue will hold its second meeting Monday.

Even though the Windham family lives in North Raleigh, Windham had heard about Hunter’s mobile produce stand on a WSHA radio program. So the family ventured Saturday to the Statue Side Business Plaza off Rock Quarry Road to buy greens, sweet potatoes, cucumbers, apples, red potatoes and tangerines.

Hunter and his operations manager, Anita Woodley, started Grocers on Wheels in November in response to Kroger’s closing of two nearby stores last year. Kroger officials said the stores were not profitable. The former Kroger on New Bern Avenue quickly turned over to a Carly C’s IGA, but the other store, on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, remains vacant. It became difficult for some residents who don’t have cars to get to the nearest grocery stores, a Food Lion, 1.3 miles south on Raleigh Boulevard, or Larry’s Super Market, a small family-run store about 1.4 miles north.

Kroger’s announcement rocked the community and eventually led state lawmakers to create a committee to study the issue of food deserts. In urban areas, residents live in a food desert if they are more than a mile away from a grocery store; in rural areas, it is 10 miles.

The Windhams can drive to the farmers market or Grocers on Wheels’ stand to buy fresh fruits and vegetables, but others in the community don’t have those means.

“There are so many people who don’t have that transportation,” said Rep. Yvonne Lewis Holley, a Democrat who represents Southeast Raleigh.

Holley introduced a bill last year to offer tax credits to businesses that opened or expanded their operations to sell nutrient-dense foods in designated food deserts. The bill didn’t get any traction. But Holley garnered support among urban and rural lawmakers across the aisle by handing out maps showing where food deserts existed in their legislative districts. She convinced House Speaker Thom Tillis to create a study committee, making the case that it will create jobs in the communities.

The Pennsylvania model

The committee could look to Pennsylvania as a model for how to help people in food deserts. In 2004, the state legislature allocated $30 million over three years to the Pennsylvania Fresh Food Financing Initiative. The program offered money to businesses willing to sell or expand their fresh food offerings in food deserts. The money could be used to buy land or equipment, to renovate or do new construction, or even to offer employee training.

Within 10 years, the initiative helped 88 projects, which increased food access to 500,000 residents, retained and created 5,000 jobs and led to $190 million in total retail investment, according to Julia Koprak with the Food Trust, a private partner with the initiative. Koprak said other cities and states have followed the Pennsylvania model, including New Orleans and the state of New York. And, she added, the most recent farm bill increases federal funding for healthy food financing from about $35 million to $125 million.

The Kroger didn’t go into that location on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard without some controversy. In 2000, Martin Street Baptist Church, where then-city councilman James West was a member, decided to sell eight acres to developer Craig Ralph to build a shopping center along that major artery of Southeast Raleigh. Ralph announced a commitment from Kroger to build a 57,000-square-foot store in the center.

Just about a week before Ralph’s announcement, a Food Lion had opened in the former Winn-Dixie location at the Southgate Shopping Plaza, 1.3 miles away. Over the objections of the planning commission, the city council approved the shopping center, and former Mayor Paul Coble championed the deal as part of his commitment to Southeast Raleigh.

Smaller stores may be answer

In retrospect, community activists and politicians agree that the Kroger may have been too big for the community to support. “At the end of the day, this community could not support two grocery stores,” said Daniel Coleman, chair of the South Central Citizens Advisory Committee. Coleman, West, who is now a Wake county commissioner, and others now say it would make more sense to try to open a smaller grocery store, like Larry’s, to serve that area.

It’s unclear what will happen with the former Kroger store, which Kroger owns. City Councilman Eugene Weeks would like to see the space subdivided to possibly include a smaller grocery store, a day care center or a pharmacy. But Weeks said talks have stalled with Kroger officials. A regional spokesman for Kroger did not respond last week to email or voicemail messages asking about the status of the property.

Hunter and Woodley of Grocers on Wheels are among those scheduled to speak at Monday’s legislative hearing, and they have good news to share with the committee. On Saturday, they signed a lease to open a 1,000-square-foot grocery store in the Statue Side Business Plaza. They hope to open this spring.

Weigl: 919-829-4848; Twitter: @andreaweigl

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