City Council approves grocery store to combat food insecurity

Photo by Cameron Leonard
Shelves left nearly empty with little options to choose from. Thankfully City Council gave an initial OK a $500k plan to help alleviate it with a grocery store grant. Photo by Cameron Leonar.
Photo by Cameron Leonard
Shelves left nearly empty with little options to choose from are the reality of many Richmond citizens. City Council unanimously voted on a $500,000 plan to help alleviate food insecurity this month. Photo by Cameron Leonar.

City Council unanimously approved a plan to build a multi-use grocery story in one of Richmond’s most food-insecure areas on Sept. 6.

The store is intended for the corner of Nine Mile Road and North 25th Street. The 7th District City Council member, Cynthia Newbille, spoke at the meeting in favor of the new grocery store.

“We have too many dying too early,” Newbille said, “and too often from preventable and/or treatable health conditions that are associated with access or lack of access to produce and affordable resourcing such that will be provided through the grocery store.”

The east end is not the only “food desert” — an urban area with little or no access to fresh food — in the city, though. Richmond’s South Side and portions of Midlothian are also in a state of crisis, with no foreseeable plans in place.

Richmond was identified as America’s largest food desert for a city of its kind, with a roughly 23 percent food-insecure population, according to a 2012 study conducted by researchers at Virginia Tech and Virginia State University.

According to a 2015 study by Feeding America, the largest domestic hunger-relief organization, Richmond was one of the 11 highest food-insecure areas in the nation. The River City simultaneously touted the highest meal cost of that group at $3.38, which is 21 percent higher than the national average of $2.79.

Infographic by Sarah Butler
Infographic by Sarah Butler

“For a household struggling to afford housing, utilities and other necessities, the additional burden of expensive food can have a significant impact on a household’s budget,” the study states.

The 11 highest food-insecure counties averaged one in four people were food insecure and had higher poverty, homeownership and unemployment rates than the national average.

Researchers at VCU seem to agree. A 2016 study by the Center of Society and Health states the correlation between physical health problems and lack of access to fresh produce.

“Diets deficient in fruits and vegetables are linked to numerous acute and chronic health problems such as diabetes, hypertension, obesity, heart disease and stroke,” the VCU report states.

Sara Schmatz of Shalom Farms, one of the many community farms helping fight food insecurity in the greater Richmond area, said these problems are not going unnoticed by local vendors.

“It’s an area that is full of food choices but they tend to be more food products,” Schmatz said. “So things you would typically find in a corner store like chips, soda and jerky.”

Schmatz said without access to proper food like fresh fruits and vegetables, consumers are faced with highly-processed options, typically characterized by high sugar and calorie content.

“Folks in those communities feel like those sorts of options are forced upon them,” Schmatz said. “Whereas having access to a grocery store would provide fresh produce.”

The food desert problem is not limited to Richmond, though.

Despite a pledge from major food retailers in 2011 to open or expand grocery or convenience stores in and around neighborhoods with no supermarkets, just 11 percent of the new supermarkets in Virginia arrived in areas that lack close access to fresh food, an Associated Press analysis of federal food stamp data has found.

As part of Michelle Obama’s healthy eating initiative, a group of companies promised to open or expand 1,500 grocery or convenience stores in and around neighborhoods with no supermarkets by 2016.

The nation’s 75 top food retailers pledged to open 1,500 stores in or around neighborhoods in need by 2016, but according to a January Associated Press analysis top retailers only opened 250 supermarkets in food deserts by the first quarter of 2015.

Nationwide, top retailers opened 10,300 stores since 2011. In Virginia, 63 stores opened, but only seven were in food deserts.

As of 2015, more than 1 million Virginia residents, including more than 480,000 children, lived in lower-income communities with limited supermarket access, according to the American Heart Association and Food Trust.

The study recommended Virginia invest in a statewide healthy-food financing program, but according to the January data from the Associated Press, only 11 percent of new Virginia supermarkets have located in food-insecure areas since 2011; none were in Richmond.


marylee clark. photo by sarah kingMary Lee Clark
Mary Lee is a senior studying journalism. She currently interns for RVAmag and, in addition to writing for the CT. She previously worked as a makeup artist at Darkwood Manor, did lighting design at Trackside Theater (where she is now on the Board of Directors) and photographed for the Page News and Courier.
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