Startup Grocers Aim to Flood South Memphis’ Food Desert

Jun 20, 2013

Eddie Miller stands in front of a local bodega in South Memphis, T.N. The closest supermarket to Miller's neighborhood is around two miles away, prompting officials to label the community a "food desert."

Like most shoppers at the Shop & Save corner store in South Memphis, Eddie Miller doesn’t own a car.

He walks to the store to pick up groceries, but it’s slim pickings: chips, fried pies, processed meats, and nothing even resembling fresh produce. The closest supermarket selling fresh fruits and vegetables is the Kroger on Third Street or the Kroger in midtown Memphis. Both are roughly two miles away.

“That’s a 45 minute bus ride, almost two hours round-trip,” says Miller, an elderly man who would struggle to haul a week’s worth of groceries cross-town. As a result, he often settles on nearby bodegas, gas stations, and fast-food restaurants for meals.

Miller's lack of access to healthy food is common in a neighborhood that’s seen multiple grocery stores move out over the years as the local population has dwindled and household incomes have shrunk. The exodus of grocers has led the government to label South Memphis a “food desert,” defined as a region in which a third of the population lives more than a mile from a supermarket.

After years of failed attempts to lure grocery chains back into South Memphis, state and city officials are now turning their focus to grassroots projects like community gardens and farmers markets, which are beginning to show signs of success.

One such project is the South Memphis Farmers Market, a nonprofit grocer created by the nearby St. Andrew AME Church in 2010. After operating one day per week in South Memphis for three growing seasons, the market has attracted $1.2 million in grants to stay in business year-round.

This summer, it will open a renovated space inside a 3,600 square-foot abandoned fish market, offering locals fresh produce, dairy and meats six days a week. 

Curtis Thomas, deputy executive director of The Works, the church’s community development arm that created the South Memphis Farmers Market three years ago, hopes the store’s success will draw large grocery chains back to the area.

“We want to show the big guys that these communities can support and want this type of service in their neighborhood,” he says.

Meanwhile, roadside stands and mobile food markets offering fresh produce continue to spring up across South Memphis, thanks in large part to an overhaul of zoning codes in 2010 by the Memphis City Council that streamlined the process for starting farmers markets.

Yolanda Cribbs, an employee at the local Shop & Save, says a green cart recently started parking around the block on Saturdays. While Cribbs' employer is reluctant to purchase from the cart and re-sell to locals because the Shop & Save doesn’t have proper facilities to preserve the food, Cribbs, a South Memphis resident, is happy to buy food from the cart for her family. After all, it often saves her a trip cross town.  

For its part, the South Memphis Farmers Market will re-open this summer with a staff of 40 that's largely made up of locals.

"We're growing fast and staffing up," says Thomas. Food for thought, especially for grocers weighing moves into new markets.

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