CINCINNATI — Stephen Sanders knows the hassles of living in a so-called “food desert,” a place with limited access to affordable, high-quality fresh food.
Twice a week, he leaves his Avondale apartment and goes more than three miles each way to get to a grocery store.
“I either have to do down off of West Mitchell to Kenard street Kroger or either over to Norwood Kroger,” Sanders said. “I’m right in the middle of both of them.”
Relief is in the works.
Negotiations are underway to bring fresh groceries back to the neighborhood in a new 15,000-square-foot space at Avondale Town Center, according to Reginald Harris, community life senior manager for The Community Builders.
The storefront will be divided into two sections, Harris said: A larger area for dry goods such as peanut butter, cereal, paper towels and dish soap; and a smaller area stocked with fresh fruit, vegetables, dairy, meat and baked goods. Items in the latter will come from local entrepreneurs who receive training on how to be successful in the business, he said.
“We have to be innovative," Harris said. "We have to think about sustainable models, to help folks reimagine what grocery looks like outside of a big-box grocery store.”
The Community Builders has been trying to get a grocery tenant ever since it began work to redevelop Avondale Town Center. The tumultuous state of the grocery industry has made that tricky, Harris said, but the development company remains committed to bringing fresh groceries back to the neighborhood.
“Our community is behind this, and they want this,” he said. “It’s important for the community to know how seriously we are taking that.”
More than 50 percent of the grocery industry’s profit disappeared worldwide between 2012 and 2017, according to an analysis by McKinsey & Company. Those shrinking profits have prompted large grocery chains to close stores and rethink the way they get products to customers, which Harris said has made it all the more difficult for neighborhoods like Avondale to get the kinds of stores and development that their residents want.
“The work in this community, in Avondale, is about more than the money because for such a long time, the voices of people in this neighborhood were not listened to,” Harris said. “The community has had a very clear understanding of who they are and where they would like to be, and the dollars didn’t always respect that.”
Figuring out how to provide high-quality, fresh food in lower-income neighborhoods with lots of residents has been a challenge across the country, Harris said. Corner stores make their money from calorie-dense shelf-stable food along with the sale of alcohol, tobacco and lottery tickets.
“7-Eleven has a model, but it’s not really health focused," Harris said in an email to WCPO. "The dollar stores have the perishables market, but now they’re overbuilt and struggling. The total grocery dollar is too small for the supermarkets to be able to scale down.”
The new concept for Avondale Town Center of pairing a “dry goods provider” with fresh vendors should allow for good profit margins and the chance to invest in local entrepreneurs, he said.
The Avondale Community Council supports the concept, said council president Patricia Milton.
“It’s really come down to being creative,” she said. “The way that store is being built, as the community changes and grocers stabilize and want to branch out into the community, that space could accommodate a traditional grocery store, too.”
Either way, having a store with fresh fruit and vegetables in Avondale would offer big benefits for the neighborhood, Milton said.
The community council has been encouraging healthier eating through a farmer’s market and by supporting Gabriel’s Place, a community garden, marketplace and kitchen that hosts cooking classes.
However, the store at Avondale Town Center will give residents something that's still missing: A place they can shop daily for fresh foods and healthy prepared meals.
“If you don’t remove the barriers that cause the problems in the first place, the problems will never go away,” she said. “If you don’t have your health, nothing else matters, and you can’t be healthy if you don’t have access to fresh fruits and vegetables.”
Sanders said he would love to have a store within walking distance of his apartment where he could buy fresh groceries.
“I think it’s an excellent idea,” he said.
The Community Builders still has to finalize the deal and get the store open, according to Harris. The goal is to have a letter of intent between The Community Builders and grocery vendors by summer of 2020, he said, noting that the build-out of the grocery space will take time, too.
“We are working on this actively, daily,” Harris said. “This is, I would say, our number one priority in making sure we have a plan in place that we can speak to really soon.”
Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. Poverty is an important focus for her and for WCPO. To reach Lucy, email email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.