Chattanooga’s food deserts remain a daily problem for many.
The Emma Wheeler homes sit in the southwest portion of the city, in an area bounded on two sides by train tracks, surrounded by industrial buildings and swampland.
On this particular Tuesday afternoon, the only sound filling the neighborhood of one-story brick houses is being made by a group of starlings perched on the topmost branches of gray trees. Occasionally, someone walks over to the main building to check their mail. Others wait on the corner for the CARTA bus.
This neighborhood is one of several in Chattanooga defined as a “food desert”—meaning, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, an urban area where there is low income (either 20 percent of the residents are below the poverty level, or a median family’s income is 80 percent of the larger area’s median income) and 33 percent live more than a mile from a grocery store.
There is a food desert in Hamilton Country that starts at the Georgia line and extends up into downtown and into East Chattanooga. According to the Hamilton County Health Department, more than 70,000 Chattanoogans live in this food desert.
For those with means or a car, the food desert doesn’t affect them profoundly—they simply drive to the store or stores. The problem is for residents who do not have reliable access to transportation. In particular, it’s hard for those residents to get fresh fruits and vegetables.
For residents at the Emma Wheeler homes, the closest store is the Bi-Lo on Tennessee Avenue, almost three miles away. With healthy options sitting that far off, many opt for the convenience of fast food, resulting in a poor diet that leads to a slew of health problems such as diabetes, heart disease and obesity.
Food deserts are a modern crisis in American cities, a problem decades in the making but only recognized less than ten years ago. Here in Chattanooga, the city has made strides in getting fresh fruits and veggies into the heart of the city—but there is a long way to go until a permanent solution is found.
CARTA-ing food home
Just before noon, the Mobile Market, a program run by the YMCA, was parked at the Emma Wheeler housing complex.
The trailer’s door was down, creating a ramp inside to the shelves of collard greens, dried beans and cans of food, and residents and employees of the housing complex browsed the aisle of food.
Residents shopping the mobile market use the store to supplement the way most usually get their food: Walk to the corner, wait for the bus, pay the $1.50 fare and take the 15-to-20 minute trip to the Bi-Lo.
Sharon Degraffenreid buys a lot of organic food. It may be more expensive, but it’s worth it, she says. Many of her neighbors don’t buy organic, “unaware of its benefits,” and instead opt for frozen meals.
She said shoppers who take the bus can only bring back as much as they can carry. If someone has a big family, “then it’s difficult to carry it on the bus,” she said, and trips to the store must be taken every day, or every other day. She lives with her two children and her daughter’s three kids. They have no car. “That makes it hard,” she said.
Trips to the grocery store take at least an hour, and if she wants to go to a store downtown, she has to make a transfer. But that’s really the only option because, “You can’t put a store here if you wanted to,” she says, even a convenience store.
“Sometimes, I don’t have the money to get on the bus,” said Shirley Pittman, another customer of the Mobile Market.
Amanda Hart finds the Mobile Market convenient because when she runs out of bread mid-week, she can’t make a quick run to the store. Hart, who is from metro Atlanta, lived near a convenience store within walking distance of her home.
But for other residents in the neighborhood like Tonya Fitch, the food desert is not a problem. She has a car. She travels to Bi-Lo and gets her canned goods from Save A Lot.” It’s not considered far for me,” she said. Fitch doesn’t like going to just one store because she likes variety.
It began with white flight
In 2007, John Bilderback, the manager of Hamilton County Health District’s Step ONE program, would talk to Chattanoogans about eating healthy, getting more fruits and veggies in their life. Afterwards, the residents would come up to him and to say they could not afford the kind of diet he was advocating, or to ask where to get fresh produce.
“I didn’t have answers and that frustrated me,” Bilderback said.
At that time, many nonprofit groups and health departments did not have a word for what they were seeing. Then the USDA created the first definition of “food desert.’”
But the problem started well before the 2000s. In the ’40s and ’50s, Chattanooga’s neighborhoods were dense and economically varied, said Jeff Pfitzer, program officer for the Benwood Foundation and former director for Gaining Ground, an organization formed to promote local foods in Chattanooga.
“Historically, most of our urban neighborhoods had grocery and corner stores that offered healthier food options,” Pfitzer wrote in an email, adding much of this food was local back then.
But then white flight happened. Those who had education and money migrated to the suburbs. Local grocery stores made way for the supermarkets. As portions of the city’s population thinned and declined in income levels, even supermarkets found it too difficult in stay in the city.
In 2012, Food Lion closed six of its “underperforming stores” in Chattanooga as part of its plan to “strengthen its U.S. portfolio,” according to a press release from that time.
According to Bilderback, “It was a decision made in the books” at Food Lion's corporate headquarters back in Europe.
Today, Chattanooga has an oversaturation of fast-food and convenience stores, Bilderback said. This can lead to higher rates of diseases associated with a poor diet, “Higher rates of just about everything,” like diabetes and obesity, he noted. Bilderback’s goal is to make healthy food available.
While Food Lion's pullout made the city’s food deserts worse, the headlines helped kickstart more efforts to bring fresh produce to the deserts. Gaining Grounds just finished a four-year initiative to promote locally produced food. As part of its mission, Gaining Ground helped farmer’s markets by providing training and marketing.
Community gardens have popped up in the city, started by organizations like Step ONE. But the only initiative to directly attack local food deserts is the Chattanooga Mobile Market.
Driving towards a solution
Bilderback said the city considered a mobile market in 2011, but the idea was abandoned because the idea was thought to be not feasible. Food Lion’s pullout changed all that. Local food and charity organizations like the YMCA, Gaining Ground, Step ONE and Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities partnered to get the nonprofit running. They modeled Chattanooga’s mobile market after the mobile market program in Nashville.
Today, the Mobile Market serves the inner reaches of the food desert, making scheduled stops around the city each week, carrying local produce and food made without high-fructose corn syrup or other preservatives. “When you ask whether (the mobile market) did what it set out to do, there is an unequivocal answer: Yes,” said Bilderback.
Today, about 66 percent of the people living in Chattanooga’s food desert live within one mile of a weekly, Mobile Market stop.
Tara Williams was running the Mobile Market when it stopped at the Emma Wheeler homes. She talked with the 11 customers who bought food, saying the market has a sale on Cameo apples.
William’s week begins Monday at 4 a.m. when she goes to the store to stock the market. On an average week, she’ll buy two carts worth of groceries from Walmart and head to Linda’s Produce to get the market’s produce. While the Mobile Market gets a lot of its supplies from Walmart, Williams said the program is looking for other, more local, options.
By 10 a.m. Monday, she is parked outside of Patten Towers—the market’s newest stop—open for business.
Civic groups agree that while the Mobile Market is a good intermediate solution, a more permanent solution must be found. The ideal solution, Bilderback said, is for grocery stores to go into the food desert. But economics make it more difficult than simply getting a business license at city hall.
“Chattanooga’s got a fundamental problem: Our density isn’t high enough to attract a major supermarket,” Bilderback said, adding grocery stores usually operate at a 1 to 1.5 percent profit margin, which is extremely low, and demands high volume to work at all.
A new store needs to pay startup costs that could run into the millions for the property and building.” The free market economy isn’t balancing out all the way,” he said.
At the Benwood Foundation, Pfitzer said it is incredibly economically challenging to start grocery stores in low-income communities because there is little disposable income in those areas.
“If it was easy, somebody would already be doing it—but that doesn’t stop us from trying."