Business

Who knew grocery stores – or the lack of them – could be so controversial?

Shoppers at the Publix store in Ballantyne pass by a price comparison display in this photo from 2014.
Shoppers at the Publix store in Ballantyne pass by a price comparison display in this photo from 2014. dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

There seems to be no shortage of (very) strong opinions in Charlotte about the city’s uneven grocery store development.

I wrote a story earlier this month about how new supermarkets are being built almost on top of one another in more affluent parts of Charlotte, but development tends to steer clear of lower-income areas.

Margins are thin in the grocery industry, so companies try to be strategic about placing stores in areas with the most profit potential. The seven grocery stores that have opened in Mecklenburg County since 2015 are located in thriving, predominantly white neighborhoods where the median household income is nearly 50 percent higher than the county’s median of $56,800, we found.

But lack of access to a full-service grocery store makes life harder for some folks, many of whom rely on public transportation. I spoke with one woman who lives off West Boulevard and doesn’t have a car. For her, shopping for groceries means taking a bus uptown, then transferring to another bus that takes her to a Wal-Mart Supercenter on Wilkinson Boulevard.

After I wrote that story, emails, tweets, phone calls and letters to the editor flowed in – some readers pleaded for better bus routes in Charlotte, others questioned why corporations would ever want to expand into impoverished areas where crime is high. One woman called to personally offer to drive residents who live along West Boulevard to the grocery store.

Grocery chains, for their part, say they consider a variety of factors when choosing locations – from traffic patterns to residential growth to demographics and economics.

There’s clearly no simple solution to Charlotte’s uneven grocery store growth. Still, there is no denying that some parts of Charlotte are enjoying the city’s development boom much more than others.

Here are some of the comments I’ve received from Charlotte readers:

▪ Beth Racine, an associate professor of public health at UNC Charlotte, noted that while “food is a business,” the fact that full-service stores gravitate away from low-income areas is detrimental to the public health of people who live there. According to Racine’s research, only about 78 percent of the people who qualify for SNAP benefits (food stamps) in Mecklenburg County end up redeeming them, for whatever reason. But those who do receive them often use them at grocery stores, she noted. Improving the application rate of the program, and having it available at co-ops like the one described in the story, Racine said, would be beneficial.

▪ A reader named Ed Stone proposed a neighborhood ride-sharing initiative for grocery trips. Stone sees that kind of effort as a way for a neighborhood to fix its own problems, especially with the support of activists and community organizations. “Rather than a complicated ‘Uber-like’ web-based approach, it could simply be offered by handwritten fliers on residents doors,” Stone said.

▪ Many reached out to ask why grocers would expand into “crime-ridden areas.” That would be bad business, they said. After all, the objective of the grocery industry is to make a profit. “My understanding of the retail grocery business is that their goal is to make money, not crusade for social equality,” Mike Wilson of Concord wrote in a letter to the editor.

▪ Several readers decried the issue as a socioeconomic ill that should be addressed by city policymakers. Some asked whether it was possible to use tax incentives to entice major grocery chains to areas bereft of stores – the addition of stores, they said, would provide not only access to fresh food, but also employment opportunities. “Charlotte will not become a great city because of its shiny buildings or sports teams. It will only be great when it puts people in need first,” Kathy Robertson said in an email.

▪ Robert Epes noted on Twitter that “free market has limitations.” “Gov intervention for greater good sometimes (is) A++,” he said.

▪ Many think that the CATS bus system needs to add routes to areas with more retail options. “Once again, public transit is failing those who need it most,” tweeted Cody Stadler.

So, what do you think? Let us know in the comments.

Katherine Peralta: 704-358-5079, @katieperalta

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