Southern Indiana

A trip to the grocery store was once a simple task for Brittany Davis.

As a resident of the New Albany Housing Authority complex along Bono Road, Davis only had to walk a half mile to the Save A Lot on State Street. But that changed in June 2020, when the grocery store closed its doors.

“We ride right past the building all the time, you know, and be like, ‘Dang, I wish the Save A Lot was right there,’” Davis said.

Save A Lot was the last full-service grocery store in downtown New Albany. The building now sits vacant, with only the faded remnants of its logo on the façade.

Shopping for groceries is now much more difficult for Davis. She goes to the Kroger farther down State Street.

It’s about twice the distance as Save A Lot was, and the one-mile walk is strenuous, with several hills along the way. Davis makes this trek at least twice a month.

“Basically, two grocery carts and three kids travel along with me,” Davis said. “I either have to try to find a ride, but still, majority of the time, I’m just walking with my carts and my kids. And that’s back and forth.”

Company officials said closing the Save A Lot was partially a financial decision. Local nonprofits have tried to fill the gap, but activists and residents agree more needs to be done.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s definition of a food desert includes urban neighborhoods that are more than a mile away from the nearest supermarket or grocery store and have poverty rates greater than or equal to 20 percent. The USDA website only lists one tract of land in New Albany’s uptown area, east of Vincennes Street, as a food desert.

But the map uses data from 2019 and still shows Save A Lot as an operational grocery store. Its closure means residents of four additional tracts of New Albany may have limited access to groceries. That could affect up to about 13,500 people.

There are some other options near the city’s core, but none as robust as the former grocery store. The New Albany Farmers Market offers a selection of fresh produce and meat from local vendors, but it’s normally open just one day a week, and its main location is still about a mile from residents of Davis’s complex.

Manager Liz Martino said foot traffic has increased since the Save A Lot closed, and the market is opening up new payment options for customers.

“We’re going to be starting that program pretty soon where we can accept SNAP here at our info booth,” Martino said. “And then you can take it to the approved vendors and be able to purchase fresh produce and other products as well. Now we have a local bank, who has partnered with us and has granted us with a nice stipend to be able to double those.”

Martino said between 50,000 and 75,000 shoppers come through the farmers market every year. She’s proud of the services offered there, but she’d like to see more shopping options in different parts of the city.

“There’s definitely a need for that downtown,” Martino said. “And I know that there are people in our community that are excited and passionate and really want to see that happen.”

New Roots & Fresh Stop Markets is another collective fighting to expand food access in New Albany and the surrounding area.

Every other week, the group operates a market at Sojourn Church that serves about 100 local families. Executive Director Karyn Moskowitz said families pre-purchase the produce on a sliding price scale, and the group accepts SNAP benefits.

“People shouldn’t have to go more than half a mile to get food,” Moskowitz said. “We’re so far away from that. Local grassroots efforts like this are working. The only problem is, the private sector and the public sector are not supporting us.”

Moskowitz said the market is focusing on families who are most at-risk for food insecurity right now and that those interested can check if they’re eligible on the New Roots website.

Like Martino, Moskowitz said the various smaller initiatives across New Albany aren’t enough to overcome the problems posed by the food desert.

“We can’t do this alone,” Moskowitz said. “It’s not going to just be one group or one person who can make headway, and it doesn’t happen overnight. This is something that’s been coming for decades, the consolidation of the grocery stores and the creation of food apartheid.”

Advocates say New Albany needs at least one full-service grocery store in the center of town. But there are currently no plans for such a project.

New Albany Redevelopment Director Josh Staten said the city is open to partnering with local nonprofits and finding a new store for downtown.

“Well, the city’s had conversations with different groups, different local and regional national groups about expanding or new locations,” Staten said. “I think anything we can do to help the city of New Albany to build upon what we’re already doing, expand upon services and add new amenities, we would be interested in looking into.”

But in the meantime, Brittany Davis and her neighbors will have to keep walking a mile out to get food.

“We need fresh meat, everything,” Davis said. “Fresh vegetables. All of that. Fresh bread. We need everything fresh. A clean grocery store.”

John Boyle is a reporter and editor at WFPL news focused on Southern Indiana. He is a corps member with Report For America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.