Handwringing over the city’s most visible food desert, Northeast Central Durham, seems less pronounced these days, what with new stores and mobile vegetable vendors. This is community action at its best.
Nonetheless, this most distressed part of the city – overwhelmingly black, poor and with a surfeit of single mothers – still faces significant challenges of food inequality.
That’s not my term, but one favored by social scientists and community activists. I’m not sure what food equality would look like, though I’m certain a scattering of Harris-Teeter supermarkets in Northeast Central Durham isn’t it.
The better solution to turning the city’s perennial problem quadrant into a greener – as in veggies – place for its residents likely lies in the model exemplified by the Save-A-Lot market at the corner of Alston Avenue and Liberty Street. That’s ground zero for the largest concentration of the poor in Durham.
Save-A-Lot (the name is not an exaggeration) went into the old Winn-Dixie store at 812 Liberty St. The Winn-Dixie had operated at that location for 50 years, until the grocery chain was no longer willing to absorb losses.
Losing the store was a blow to Northeast Central Durham because the Winn-Dixie was within easy walking distance, especially for the elderly.
As socio-economic conditions deteriorated in Northeast Central Durham, the definition of food desert took on a visceral meaning. Because the U.S. Department of Agriculture defines a food desert as being more than a mile from a full-service supermarket, many people suddenly found themselves in the wilderness with the loss of Winn-Dixie.
But that was then, and this is now: Three years ago the city wisely agreed to put $150,000 into the pot if Moran Foods Inc. of St. Louis would make a $1.9 million investment in a successor to Winn-Dixie.
Moran Foods specializes in serving low-income communities, so it knew what it was getting into with a store amid what some call the “combat zone.” It was a gutsy decision for Moran and the city.
Reading Save-A-Lot’s weekly circular is a learning experience in food retailing. The store, which spawned a dozen badly needed jobs, does have lower prices than supermarkets on the perimeter of Northeast Central Durham.
How Save-A-Lot can undercut Food Lion, which has a store at 2400 Holloway St., is beyond me. The supermarket business operates on a margin as thin as dental floss. TROSA tried to make a go of it with a much-lauded food store on Angier Avenue, losing at least $100,000 before cutting its losses a couple of years ago.
Granted, Food Lion is a full-service supermarket with commensurate financial resources. Thus Food Lion can offer a wider variety of fruits, vegetables and meats than Save-A-Lot can.
You just have to get to Food Lion. The distance from Alston and Liberty is too far for walking.
For all its attributes, however, Save-A-Lot is only part of the solution to irrigating the food desert.
Two vendors, Veggies on Wheels and Grocers on Wheels are expanding their reach in northeastern Durham. (Both receive subsidies from Whole Foods and the Durham County Health Department. How long the subsidies will last is anybody’s guess.)
Thanks to a change in city regulations, these vendors can set up shop almost anywhere for a couple of hours before moving on. The list of stops is growing. Soon to come is one at Lincoln Community Health Center.
Going green? Sure, but buying greens is important, too. Cheers for City Hall, Moran Foods and those intrepid mobile vendors.