It takes hours for thousands of Chattanoogans to get to the grocery store.
With Food Lion shutting down seven of its eight Chattanooga-area stores, that number is only going to rise.
“It’s going to be horrible,” said Angela Henry, a Harriet Tubman housing development resident.
Every time Henry wants to get groceries for her 5- and 6-year-old grandchildren she has to find someone to watch them, then pay $4 for an hour or more of bus rides to get to the nearest Food Lion on Wilcox Boulevard. She can only buy as many groceries as she can carry, or else she must call a cab and pay even more for a ride home.
When Food Lions close their doors in mid-February, Henry will be forced to the next-closest grocery store, a bus ride she said can take as long as two and a half hours.
Henry’s area is part of a food desert stretching from the Georgia border at St. Elmo up through Avondale. Not all of the nearly 40,000 people living in that area struggle to get to the grocery store, but it’s a daily challenge for many.
“There is a correlation between access to good food, fruits and vegetables and obesity rate,” said Richard Mathis, who directed a 2009 study on food access and price for the Ochs Center for Metropolitan Studies. “This [closing of area Food Lion stores] creates an even worse problem.”
Urban areas are designated food deserts when a third of the population or more than 500 people live more than a mile from a supermarket or grocery store that offers healthy foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables.
Food Lion’s substantial departure from the market will place many hundreds more people living in food deserts.
The Wilcox Boulevard Food Lion is the only major food source for the part of town located roughly north of Shallowford Road and west of Highway 153.
The store’s departure means more time and money spent getting groceries for people like Henry. That cost bump can add up quickly in a community such as Harriet Tubman, where most residents live on less than $10,000 a year.
“I don’t believe you can oversell this issue because it’s that bad,” said John Bilderback, who runs the Hamilton County Health Department’s food access program.
Bus routes rarely travel straight from a housing area to a grocery store, so those few extra miles can turn an hours-long grocery trip to a daylong odyssey.
“Most people aren’t going to spend that entire Saturday going to the grocery store,” Bilderback said. “The dollars they’re spending, they’re spending them at the corner store.”
And mom and pop shops carrying salad ingredients or fresh fruit are few and far between. That leaves fast food and potato chips for the busy parent, disabled senior and others who can’t make the grocery store journey.
“All there is to buy is some chicken and some lottery tickets and some beer and that’s it,” said Rose Mary Porter, who regularly rides the bus from Alton Park to pick up food for her two great-grandchildren. “But sometimes if you’ve got a little baby [and] you don’t have any transportation, but you look up and you don’t have any milk and it’s late at night, you’re happy to have that convenience store.”
Bilderback worries Food Lion’s exit sets back the prospect of drawing in new grocers. Pre-existing food deserts may suffer longer than newly created ones because food merchants moving into the Chattanooga area may look to fill empty shopping centers before building stores of their own.
Few larger grocers are expanding, but some city and county government and business leaders are looking for ways to entice smaller grocers into desperate areas.
“What I’m intending to do is reach out to some of the folks who live here in the area who have opened and run successful grocery stores,” said Chattanooga City Councilman Peter Murphy, who represents the Wilcox Boulevard area. “We need to bring their attention to the fact that there’s a massive population at this point without a nearby market, and that may be a good opportunity for one of them to enter into that niche and replace some of the missing vendors.”
But recruiting and opening a grocery typically takes two to five years, according to Bilderback, leaving shoppers like Porter, at least for a little while, out of luck.
“They just do what they can. They get a little bit today and they get a little bit tomorrow,” Porter said. “You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do when you’ve got a family to feed.”