Community

Since the 1950s, residents of downtown New Albany have bought their food at 624 State St., which was originally a Kroger before becoming a Save A Lot. But on June 20, Save A Lot permanently closed its doors. And while there are large grocery chains like Kroger near the outskirts of town, the city’s core is now lacking a full-service grocery option.

“There’s so many of us over here that are very upset, because sometimes we don’t like the big stores,” said Kimberly Williams, who shopped at Save A Lot frequently over the last 12 years. “[Save A Lot] feels homey.  Other stores are big, crowded. I don’t like a crowd like that. I like to keep it simple. I know where everything is. That’s going to hurt.”

Williams lives in the nearby New Albany Housing Authority (NAHA) complex. Every two weeks or so, she would pull a wagon just over half a mile to shop, which would take roughly 30 minutes roundtrip.

One of New Albany’s Kroger stores is a little more than a mile away from the former Save A Lot. Though the increase in distance may seem minuscule, every extra step matters to elderly citizens like Williams. The difficulty is amplified by nearby hilly terrain and the fact that Kroger is located in a large shopping center surrounded by an expansive and busy parking lot, which makes the trip less pedestrian-friendly.

“That’s real rough,” Williams said. “You know what I mean? Because sometimes my wagon gets a little heavy. But you know, that’s how I do it… I’ll pull it home. I’m going to miss that. I am.”

John Boyle | wfpl.org

NAHA also has a residential complex on the opposite side of State Street from the former Save A Lot, known as River View Towers. That property is mostly occupied by elderly and disabled residents.

Those without mobility issues could make the two-block trip to Save A Lot in around five minutes. It takes over half an hour to get to Kroger.

While driving makes the trip much shorter, many NAHA residents don’t have personal vehicles. Instead, they rely on TARC buses. But with the rise of the coronavirus pandemic, some are hesitant to use public transportation.

“You got people right now that’s talking about or wondering how they’re going to get to the store,” said William Irwin, who started shopping at Save A Lot in 2007. “You know, a lot of us don’t have vehicles. And then with the COVID-19 popping off, people are leery about getting on the bus. So yeah, it’s a problem.”

‘Food Oppression’

The USDA identifies food deserts as neighborhoods that are more than one mile away from the nearest supermarket or grocery store in urban areas – or 10 miles in rural areas – and have poverty rates greater than or equal to 20 percent. One tract of New Albany east of downtown that has a population of 1,897 was already listed on the USDA’s interactive atlas of food deserts, which uses data from 2015.

With the closure of Save A Lot, four more tracts that meet the poverty thresholds could also qualify. Up to 13,500 residents of New Albany may now be living in food deserts.

The problem isn’t limited to New Albany. Sizeable portions of the Interstate 65 corridor in neighboring Clark County are also already listed as food deserts, affecting over 15,500 residents of Clarksville and Jeffersonville.

Lauren Ornelas, founder and executive director of the Food Empowerment Project, uses the terms “food apartheid” and “food oppression” to describe this landscape. She said that the issue is one that’s linked to demographic makeup more than geographic location.

“It tends to be communities that are Black and Brown and indigenous,” she said. “They have higher rates of dietary diseases, and these communities tend to have more fast food, convenience stores and liquor stores. Unfortunately, where these communities tend to get a lot of their food is going to be those convenience stores and liquor stores.”

Though there are now no full-service grocery stores within a mile of most of NAHA’s properties, there are at least three liquor stores within less than a mile. Some smaller convenience stores also operate in the vicinity.

But Ornelas said that her team has found that even those convenience stores and liquor stores that have goods like produce in stock may not have prices clearly indicated. This puts shoppers who don’t speak English at a disadvantage, she said.

Those factors put together can have a negative impact on the mental health of people who live in food deserts.

“It also does a number on their self-esteem,” Ornelas said. “In the focus groups we’ve done, they feel like they’re not worth it, that nobody cares about them. Nobody thinks they’re worth getting healthier food or produce that isn’t rotten, so it does take a toll on them mentally, as well.”

There is also a downside to other alternatives to neighborhood grocery stores, Ornelas added. While New Albany does have dollar stores, the offerings aren’t nearly as robust as a traditional grocery store, nor are pricing and routine product availability as steady and reliable.

Delivery services that allow customers to shop from their computer or phone are also not ideal replacements. In addition to issues with internet access, shoppers often prefer the in-store experience.

“For the community members that we spoke to, that wasn’t going to work for them,” Ornelas said. “They wanted to be able to pick up the fruit, smell it themselves, feel it, just like many of us want to. So why should people who live in this community be any different?”

One of the solutions Ornelas advocates for is people growing their own food. This allows them to no longer have to rely on a system that “wasn’t really looking out” for them to begin with, as Ornelas put it.

But for those who don’t have the land, time or other capabilities to grow their own food, Ornelas says worker-owned cooperatives are a potential option. The cooperative model would allow the ones living in the neighborhood to be in charge of operations and business decisions, thus allowing the profits to stay in the community.

“Jobs are going to be created and entrepreneurial skills will be something that the young people will have with them for the rest of their lives,” Ornelas said. “So those are the types of solutions we feel that not only hopefully the community can learn about and be interested in, but also that government officials will recognize what’s happening to their community and want to invest back into that community.”

For now, New Albany residents are eyeing potential paths forward. Some have discussed circulating a petition in an effort to highlight the importance of the issue to city officials.

William Irwin said that he’d personally like to see a Pic-Pac or a small Kroger take over the location. No matter who the next tenant is, Irwin hopes it happens soon.

John Boyle covers southern Indiana communities and health for WFPL News. He is a Report for America Corps member.