Local & State Voices

Free market or fresh market? How Charlotte can do better with food deserts.

Too many communities in Charlotte don’t have easy access to fresh produce and other groceries.
Too many communities in Charlotte don’t have easy access to fresh produce and other groceries. cseward@newsobserver.com

What do local governments do when they have entire sections of their community without a grocery store or access to fresh foods? If you’re Charlotte-Mecklenburg, apparently just about nothing. Even when we’re bound and determined to reverse our reputation as the nation’s worst city for economic opportunity, we’re leaving access to fresh foods, fruits and vegetables entirely to the “free market” to solve.

Even in a city where the “free market” isn’t free at all, we hope if we create enough economic development and growth, stores will change their mind and want to locate where they once wouldn’t. Of course they will. But that’s unlikely to happen until communities that are currently low income and poor transform into middle to higher income communities. Those of us not trying to slip daylight past a rooster call that gentrification. And last time I checked, it wasn’t considered a good thing in a town that already has a near emergency affordable housing deficit.

This problem isn’t unique to our area. It’s an issue of pure economics all over the country. Grocery companies have metrics they use to determine where best to locate stores, and those metrics simply don’t support stores where crime is perceived to be an issue and people are considered likely to shoplift and unlikely to be able to afford anything other than junk. This creates swaths of areas that become “food deserts” and “food insecure.” You know it’s serious when there are legitimate academic terms for what’s going on.

The rub here is that peer communities all over the nation have gotten creative with efforts to solve this issue. Some have created public-private partnerships to support mobile food trucks that sell nothing but fresh foods at or near cost. Others have supported initiatives to locate micro-farmers markets on municipal land. And in some cases, governments have gone so far as to subsidize and underwrite traditional grocery stores. These efforts are inexpensive and they’re working.

Numerous community non-profits in our area are already working to change this. The Aldersgate retirement community on the east side has donated seven acres of their land for an “Urban Garden,” which will sell directly to nearby residents as well as to area vendors at low cost. The Roots in the Community Market Foundation is trying to jump start what they call a “grocery store for poor people” in an area where none currently exists. All are noble endeavors, but ultimately these efforts are small, isolated and are woefully underfunded.

Our local governments can and should interject themselves here. For relatively little money, we can disrupt this unnecessary inequity affecting people’s health and dignity. One legacy of the failed War on Poverty is that caloric deficits have been replaced with rampant obesity in our poorest communities. That’s because there’s a straight line connecting where they shop, what they can afford and what they eat.

And before you go all “free-market” on me, Charlotte-Mecklenburg is already a well-established corporate welfare state. Our skyline and many of our jobs have been substantially bought and paid for by our tax dollars, intended to lure certain companies to certain areas in exchange for certain outcomes. So why wouldn’t our elected officials deem worthy similar efforts on behalf of supporting nutrition, jobs and dignity where they are needed most? I’ll let you answer that one yourself.

Email: Billy@billymaddalon.com