Might downtown Walmart relieve ‘food desert?’

By Keith Llado

Athens food desert still uncertain in wake of proposed downtown grocer, Walmart

“People need to look into their individual communities” to determine the extent of “food deserts” in local areas, said Julia Gaskin, sustainable agriculture coordinator of the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

                Part of the problem in assessing if a community suffers from food deserts is that the current U.S. Department of Agriculture food desert map does not take into account small stores or local markets, Gaskin said.

                “The USDA Food Desert Locator provides more of a satellite view,” Gaskin said.

                The downtown Walmart, likely anchor store of the 315 Oconee St. mixed-use development plans, would offer citizens greater access to affordable foods in the downtown area, said Jo Ann Chitty, senior vice president of Selig Enterprises Inc.

                Selig is the company responsible for spearheading the potential development of the Armstrong-Dobbs tract.

                As a result of The Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008, the Economic Research Service conducted a one-year national study to better understand food deserts, their measurements and causes. The USDA classified ACC as a food desert as a result of this study.

                A food desert is “a low-income census tract where a substantial number or share of residents has low access to a supermarket or large grocery store,” according to the Healthy Food Financing Initiative Working Group.

                The ERS classified the Armstrong-Dobbs tract of 315 Oconee St.—part of tract number 13059000100—as a food desert.

                Among the 819 residents of the tract, 100 percent are classified as low access and about 50 percent are low-income with low access.  

                “Low access to a healthy food retail outlet is defined as more than 1 mile from a supermarket or large grocery store in urban areas,” according to the USDA. The Oconee Street tract is an urbanized census tract. 

                There are over 50 restaurants, including fast food, in the downtown area. Horton’s Drug Store Inc. and the Lay-Z-Shopper are the only downtown businesses that carry some form of grocery food. The Lay-Z-Shopper, along with canned foods and milk, carries packaged meats and cheeses.

                Supermarket El Camino Real, 4 Tigers Supermarket and Buy 4 Less are all located on North Avenue, about a mile from the downtown area. Daily Groceries Co-op is located a half-mile away from downtown on Prince Avenue.

                Earth Fair is located over a mile from downtown on Lumpkin Street. Fooks Foods is located on Baxter Street, just under a mile from the Miller Learning Center in the heart of the UGA campus. 

                Gas station convenience stores compose the available groceries on Oconee Street and West Broad Street within a mile from downtown. While convenience stores are available on almost every main road leaving downtown, their grocery selection is typically limited to milk, bread and canned foods.

                The nearest brand-name grocer is a Kroger, located about two miles away from the MLC down Baxter Street—over two miles from the downtown area. The Kroger sits within a mile of one other local grocer and more than 15 restaurants.

                “It’s all about access,” Chitty said.

                Among other criteria, a low-income census tract must have a poverty rate of at least 20 percent, according to the Treasury Department’s New Markets Tax Credit program. The percentage of people living below the poverty level between 2006 and 2010 in ACC was roughly 33 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

                “You’d have to be an idiot to go hungry in Athens,” said Daniel Pennington, 54, a homeless resident who currently lives in a tent near the Oconee River. “I could go down to the church right now and grab a bag of food.”

                There are many food banks and food drives, but a study on food deserts should be assessed according to economic class—homeless, low, middle and upper class, Pennington said, sitting in front of the downtown Taco Stand. “Not everyone’s going to shop at a Kroger.”

                Pennington shops at the Buy 4 Less on North Avenue because it’s cheap.

                Along with affordability and access, the availability of public transit plays a roll in determining food desert severity.

                The USDA’s food desert study does not assume bus routs, said David Berle, associate professor of the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

                “Though there are clearly gaps in the Athens transit system, there is service to many parts of the county, grocery stores included,” Berle said.       

                At a price of $1.50 per one-way ride, Athens Transit is available to take residents to grocers outside of the one-mile radius from downtown. This is more time consuming than using personal transportation. The average trip on Route 25 to the Lexington Road Walmart could take three hours. The typical bus runs on an hourly schedule.

                Athens Transit has a safety policy that allows for up to five carry-on grocery bags per person, said Butch McDuffie, director of Athens Transit. Passengers must keep these bags in their lap or under their seat.

                “Athens Transit does allow and encourages passengers to use small shopping carts, which are better suited for transporting shopping bags,” McDuffie said.

                The mixed-use project is still in its planning, design and leasing phase. It will be several months until Selig addresses permits for the property, Chitty said.

                As development plans of the Armstrong-Dobbs tract progress, citizens must consider if a downtown Walmart would offer food benefits to the area.

                “I think the talk about food deserts provides a good place to start and a concept that is easy to understand,” Berle said. “Everyone recognizes the connection between food, health and wealth.”

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