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Return to the food desert?
Food Lion's closing reduces healthy options
The windows are papered over at the Food Lion on MLK Blvd.

Two years ago, the neighborhood along the MLK Boulevard corridor was described as a “food desert.” After a brief oasis, it seems to have dried out again.

A hot-button topic for groups working to alleviate poverty locally and nationwide, food deserts are highly–populated areas where healthy, affordable nourishment is hard to find. They’re most associated with communities low on the socioeconomic stratosphere and more likely to affect minorities.

That’s why when Food Lion opened its doors on MLK Boulevard in March 2011, it was heralded as an enormous step towards breaking the cycle of poverty that persists in the surrounding neighborhoods.

While supermarkets are nowhere to be seen in food deserts, fast food and convenience stores selling high–fat, high–sugar snacks are in abundance — promoting higher levels of obesity, diabetes and heart disease among residents who can’t afford health insurance premiums.

Studies show that when access to fresh, whole foods are made available, the entire community’s eating habits, its health and ultimately, its quality of life can improve drastically.

Unfortunately, just 11 months later, the grocery’s doors are shuttered. It was one of five local “underperforming” stores and 113 nationwide closed by Delhaize, Food Lion’s Belgian parent company, as a “key strategic action to strengthen its U.S. portfolio.”

To those working to help people, especially poor people, develop healthy eating strategies in Savannah, it’s a big step backwards.

“We desperately need fresh food in that area,” said Diana Morrison, the new chair of the Healthy Savannah 2012 Initiative.

A volunteer organization on the brink of receiving nonprofit status, Healthy Savannah often partners with business leaders to offer free nutritional programming. Healthy employees cost far less than sick ones, and Morrison says access to whole fruits and vegetables “is a basic step in supporting a healthy workforce.”

Spearheaded by former Mayor Otis Johnson, Healthy Savannah commissioned a city–funded study in 2010 that highlighted the lack of venues providing fresh produce in certain neighborhoods. While the report didn’t technically acknowledge the MLK corridor as a food desert, it characterized it as greatly “out of balance” with its preponderance of fast food chains and lack of a “mainstream grocer.”

Many, including Mayor Edna Jackson, thought the Food Lion would bring it back into balance.

Jackson expressed “shock and disappointment” at the sudden announcement of the store’s closure in mid–January. She had just met with Food Lion reps and local church leaders in December to discuss how to better market the store to its surrounding demographic in the face of flagging sales.

“We thought we were moving in the right direction,” Jackson told Connect last week. “But it seems like they didn’t look for a solution until it was already too late. The store really didn’t have a chance to grow.”

In response to complaints that Food Lion didn’t do its homework by not offering products aimed at the African–American community and being slow to accept Women Infants and Children subsidies, Food Lion media relations director Christy Phillips–Brown wouldn’t engage in specifics.

“All I can tell you is that we strive to meet the needs of the communities in the market,” said Phillips–Brown. “This decision was made as part of our overall strategy.”

She reported that representatives from the corporate office have been dispatched to Savannah this week to meet with city officials to “evaluate options” regarding the 24 years remaining on the building’s lease.

The store was a linchpin in the city’s plans to revitalize the MLK corridor, and the mayor doesn’t want Food Lion to simply pay the rent on a vacant building.

“We need to see another grocery store in that space where people can get their fresh fruits and vegetables,” she said.
Mayor Jackson added: “We also need to educate people on what to do with them.”

Therein lies the rub of the food desert dilemma: People don’t always know what to do with produce once they can get it.

“Everyone was looking to Food Lion to fix the food access issue in that area, but the problem is larger than that,” said longtime local food activist and Forsyth Farmers Market co–founder Teri Schell.

“Even though people want to eat healthy, they don’t always know how, even if the food is there. It’s an ongoing challenge.”

Schell hopes a grant will be funded to provide cooking classes at the market, which launched its 2012 season last week.

The Market will run every Saturday through late fall in Forsyth Park from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., offering organic and fresh local produce.

Providing “food for all” is the Market’s motto, and the board has worked to accept government–issued EBT cards and, thanks to prolific grant–writing, offers double the amount spent on EBTs up to $25.

But Schell says the Forsyth Farmers Market has struggled to attract Savannah’s poorer residents. Though it’s only five blocks from the former Food Lion, she acknowledges that it’s not the same as having a store open everyday: “We’re only here only four hours a week, and that doesn’t necessarily work for everybody.”

Mayor Jackson says she’ll encourage community leaders to spread the word about the market and to the areas around the closed Food Lion. She also committed to working with Healthy Savannah to bring more education to the neighborhood.

“The city wants to partner with people who will teach people in public housing how to prepare healthy meals, how to use the fresh produce,” she said. “We can make this city healthier.”

Diana Morrison welcomes the challenge and sees Savannah’s food deserts as a priority for the fledgling non–profit.

“Healthy Savannah will continue to push to allow our entire community to have the same opportunities,” she promised. “It will make a huge difference in who we are two generations from now.”