We’ve got our North Chattanooga Publix—but food deserts still exist.
When I moved to North Chattanooga in 2000, I would ask various community leaders when a grocery store was going to open in the area. “You’ll have to settle for Bueller’s,” one guy told me. (Bueller’s is a small grocer on Market Street with limited selection—great for the communities it serves, but not a store for the masses).
And then Greenlife came to Riverview. The quaint store on the corner definitely fit the hippie, all-natural vibe the area was coming to embody. The Pruett family saw the benefits of a new business model with Greenlife. Meanwhile, a food desert languished at the intersection of North Market and Frazier/Cherokee.
To qualify as a “low-access community,” at least 500 people and/or at least 33 percent of the census tract’s population must reside more than one mile from a supermarket or large grocery store (for rural census tracts, the distance is more than 10 miles). The closest large grocery store in those days was the Bi-Lo on Signal Mountain Road, which is three miles away.
And even when it opened in 1999, the Greenlife store in Riverview was never really considered a full-service grocery store. The founders knew this and opened a gleaming, platinum LEED-certified structure on Manufacturers Road. The new store garnered so much business the smaller store in Riverview was soon closed.
The Hill City community now had a grocery store within walking distance, but few low-income residents could afford the steep prices. Another glaring irony was the fact the high-priced store was on Manufacturers Road, long synonymous with blue-collar workers.
By 2011, Whole Foods Markets had purchased Greenlife Grocery and completely remodeled the store. But again, many who lived near the store couldn’t afford to shop there.
Rumors began to surface about a grocery store coming to the North Market area. I remember driving by the tract of land where a dilapidated former gas station stood. Could a full-service grocery store complete the area’s renaissance? Everyone I talked to said no. By looking at the tract of land, it was way too small.
Until, one day, a large wooden sign declaring “Publix coming soon!” was erected. Was it a mirage in this food desert? And a Publix at that! The chain that continually ranks highest in customer satisfaction was on its way.
But then it started to sink in. Of course Publix. Their employees and shareholders know what consumers want. From my own experience in Fort Myers, the grocery chain was in every single neighborhood. Now the people of Hill City were about to experience it for themselves. Now this one-time food desert has its oasis.
But other communities are still living in their deserts. Let us be an example that every community needs and deserves healthy food close to where they live. It shouldn’t be a privilege. To the decision-makers: Please reconsider where you put your stores. It may seem scary to place a store in a “high crime” area. But chances are that community will welcome you with open arms—and your presence will make a crucial difference.