West Greenville Food Desert More On Retail Inequality, Professor Says
For years, the people of Southernside and West Greenville – the so-called “food deserts” – have fought for a grocery store in their neighborhood. But the fight for food deserts goes far beyond food, said Ken Kolb, professor at Furman University.
If residents of an area with limited access to resources have access to healthy foods, some experts say, their eating habits will change for the better.
Local nonprofits have attempted to launch a mobile food market in Southernside and West Greenville, areas historically ravaged by economic decline and segregationist policies. The city tried to recruit grocery retailers there to no avail.
But Kolb thinks everyone – including himself – was focused on the wrong thing.
“The fight for food deserts was about more than food,” Kolb said. “It was a battle over retail, over what can be bought and sold, just as the civil rights movement was not really about the kiosks and diners.
“We just got a little blinded by the look of healthy food and grocery stores to realize that this is a much deeper and more ingrained problem that was actually caused by clear city policies. , state and federal government decades ago. ”
The problem of food desserts
In his new book, “Retail Inequality: Reframing the Food Deserts Debate,” Kolb argues that the conversation about food deserts was wrong from the start.
People like the residents of West Greenville have not asked for help improving their diets, Kolb writes. Instead, they asked for help to improve their place of life.
The real discussion is about inequality in retailing, says Kolb – or, as he describes it, “the legacy of public and private sector abandonment of poor black neighborhoods across the country.”
Kolb gives examples of this inequality through the decline of retailing in neighborhoods like Southernside. For decades, black communities in poor urban areas have demanded the same retail options as their wealthier white counterparts in other areas, he said. The grocers – corner stores, mom-and-pop stores – had closed and left, beaten up by the big chain stores that supplied the suburbs. Other retail businesses such as pawn shops and liquor stores have taken their place.
“For better or worse, being an equal member of American society means having the same ability to shop in the same places and for the same products as everyone else,” he writes.
Keeping healthy food nearby doesn’t mean people will eat it, Kolb said. Many factors influence people’s eating habits, not just access. Food habits and preferences are linked to other aspects of people’s lives, such as their work schedules or even the number of people they live with. Building a grocery store won’t solve everything.
But there’s no denying that food desserts are a powerful concept, he said. Some neighborhoods had long struggled with problems such as loss of jobs, crime and lack of infrastructure. But when local issues were framed in terms of health and nutrition, powerful people began to pay attention, even rolling out a federal program to address them, he said.
“All of these food movements that have arisen in the last 15 years, they have political capital because they are largely white middle class social movements,” Kolb said. “So when they heard ‘groceries’ they decided,’ Well that’s one way I can help because it meets my interests as well. “”
Solutions to food deserts in parts of Greenville
There are multiple potential solutions to the food desert problem, Kolb said.
One idea is to initiate group home meal preparation in local neighborhoods, a method that works well for people who are already spending time together, such as members of a church Bible study. It might require obtaining grants to set up local community centers or church kitchens, but “I think in collective groups you might get people who could work together and pool their resources to buy in bulk. “, did he declare.
Another solution is to pair mobile farmer’s markets or farmer’s stalls with stores that people already go to, such as gas stations, convenience stores, and dollar stores to create a one-stop-shop.
But the first step is to reframe the discussion – the problem is bigger than the food, Kolb said.
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In the past, Greenville and other parts of the country have enacted policies that have devastated predominantly black urban neighborhoods like Southernside, such as “urban renewal” or roads and transportation projects, Kolb said. This created pockets of “concentrated poverty” in neighborhoods that lacked the collective purchasing power to support good retail businesses, Kolb said.
And if neighborhoods were drained of that purchasing power, policymakers must find ways to subsidize the return to retail, he said.
Today, the fight in places like Southernside and West Greenville is for the future, he believes. Local communities and the private sector are investing again in these neighborhoods, bringing in new businesses. But they are faced with a difficult balance: how to revitalize communities without displacing the people who live there?
“Gentrification ‘revitalizes’ these once-forgotten communities,” Kolb writes in his book. “But for whom?”
Macon Atkinson is the town watch reporter for The Greenville News. It is fueled by long runs and strong coffee. Follow her on Twitter @maconatkinson.