Going hungry: An examination of Nashville's food deserts

Sunday, January 16, 2011 at 10:05pm
Jude Ferrara/SouthComm

The Grocery List, Part 1: North Nashville

Jefferson and D.B. Todd

This place wasn’t my first choice. Or my second. I actually hadn’t planned on coming here at all. I’ve ended up at a little combo gas station-convenience store due to the fact that my first two choices didn’t exist. Since the people who do this kind of designating have designated the neighborhood a “food desert,” and food deserts being the subject of this trip, it’s not really an unexpected turn of events. 

“I’m not sure there’s a sort of uniformly recognized consensus,” says Mark Winne in a phone interview. Winne is the New Mexico-based author of Closing the Food Gap: Resetting the Table in the Land of Plenty, and former executive director of the Hartford (Conn.) Food System, a position he held from 1979 to 2003. His credentials on the subject continue: From 2002 to 2004, Winne was a Food and Society Policy Fellow at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, which is backed by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. I’ve asked him to offer a universally accepted definition for the term “food desert,” which is surprisingly hard to find given how much it’s tossed around. 

“You definitely know it when you’re in it,” Winne says. 

According to Winne, the closest approximation to a commonly accepted definition for food desert is any census tract that isn’t within a half-mile to a mile in an urban area, 10 miles in a rural area, of a full-service grocery store or supermarket, has high rates of residents with no access to a car, limited public transit options and high rates of poverty. 

Those are more or less the same criteria the USDA used in its 2009 report to Congress, Access to Nutritious Food: Measuring and Understanding Food Deserts and Their Consequences, which found that 2.6 percent of Davidson County residents — more than 16,000 people — had no car and lived more than a mile away from the nearest supermarket. That’s the lowest of Tennessee’s three largest urban counties: 3.16 percent of Shelby County residents fit into this category, and 3.26 in Knox. It’s also much better than, say, similarly sized Jefferson County (Birmingham), Ala., where 4.18 percent of residents fit that bill. The report also revealed that 9.34 percent of Davidson residents were both low-income and live more than a mile from the store (14.94 for Knox, 10.84 for Shelby, 14.24 for Jefferson). 

There are also criteria that apply here, to the neighborhood surrounding this store, which is officially known as Census tract 142. According to the most recent Census estimates, 40 percent of the 2,380 people in 142 live below the poverty line, and only 37 percent use their own cars to get to work. The nearest supermarket, Kroger at 800 Monroe St., is exactly one mile away, accessible by the No. 29 bus except for the last bit between Jefferson and Monroe — unless you leave after 5:40 p.m., when you have to walk down to Albion to catch the Herman Street bus, which drops you off downtown. Or if you leave between midnight and 6 a.m., in which case you’re walking to a different store, because MTA buses will no longer be running, and that Kroger is closed. (See map here.) Apart from high rates of poverty and low car ownership, this neighborhood also shares a number of other traits that people like Winne say are common to food deserts, namely a large minority population — 93.2 percent of residents here are black — and many single-parent households: Only 8.8 percent of the family households here are headed by a married couple. 

It’s a textbook food desert, in other words, which is why I’m in this store. I already know what isn’t available in this area — large supermarkets — but I want to see what is available. I did an Internet search, using the search term “grocery,” of all four neighborhoods identified as food deserts by Metro Nashville Government’s Department of Services in its 2010 Community Needs Evaluation: here, Edgehill, East Nashville near Cayce Place, and near-South Nashville near the Napier Homes. I will go to the first listing in each to see what’s in stock. 

The problem, here in North Nashville, is that neither of the first two grocery listings I found are where they’re supposed to be. So,  with my first choice and my backup both no good, I drive around until I find a reasonably large convenience store. 

This one has all the normal earmarks of a corner store — dim flourescent lighting, bulletproof glass, a prominently displayed beer case — plus a few of its own unique flourishes, like a very explicitly displayed no-sagging-pants policy and a shattered-but-still-intact glass door that you have to push carefully to exit.

I’ve brought a checklist of basic grocery staples: 

1 loaf of bread

1 box of pasta

1 box of cereal

1 pound of potatoes

1 head of lettuce

1 cucumber

1 large onion

4 tomatoes

2 cans of beans

2 cans of tomato sauce

4 oranges

1 bottle of orange juice 

(at least half-gallon)

1 bottle of milk (at least half-gallon)


1 pound of ground beef

1 package of chicken breasts

1 package of butter

1 large package of lunchmeat

1 12-count egg carton

1 can of coffee

Here I’m able to find bread, pasta, cereal, beans, tomato sauce, milk, lunchmeat, eggs and coffee. 

Nashville’s ‘Grocery Stories’

“I love food,” Miriam Leibowitz says simply, when asked how and why she got into the food desert business.

Leibowitz is the program coordinator at Re/Storing Nashville, the food desert awareness and reduction campaign of Community Food Advocates, a 1-year-old nonprofit working to improve the quality and sustainability of Nashville’s food system. Leibowitz says the campaign, which has been operating under a two-year $225,000 grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, is trying to act as something of an umbrella for all the city’s groups and individual activists working to bring better food to the city’s underserved neighborhoods.

“This was certainly not a new idea. There have been campaigns to bring and retain supermarkets into Nashville’s food desert neighborhoods for 30 years, since urban renewal came in and grocery stores left North Nashville and East Nashville and Edgehill,” she says. “So we have been working with community groups who have been working on this for decades.”

Recently, R/S partnered with the Metro Department of Social Services for its annual Community Needs Evaluation, producing a city map that shows the approximate boundaries of Nashville’s most food-insecure neighborhoods along with their closest supermarkets and the location of bus routes within them. 

With that information, Leibowitz says she hopes to educate residents, government and potential real estate developers, to ultimately bring more food into food desert neighborhoods or, failing that, more effectively bring those residents to food. 

“We’ve been looking at access as a key component, direct transportation access, whether that be public or private: volunteer, subsidized, however that works best. Ideally, we’d like to see MTA increase direct access, but we’ve also been working on alternative measures,” Leibowitz says. 

Leibowitz says that lack of convenient, direct transit, especially for the elderly, disabled and parents with small children, can be a nearly insurmountable obstacle in getting to healthy, affordable food. People who live in underserved neighborhoods often have to take several buses just to get within a walkable distance of a supermarket, she says. 

“If you have to take two buses [at $1.60 apiece with no free transfers], it’s over $3 each way for one trip to the grocery store. And if you’re on a fixed income, that’s a lot of money,” Leibowitz says. 

That’s true. If you live in the JC Napier homes, for example, the nearest Kroger is at 2615 Franklin Pike in South Nashville, two buses and nearly 40 minutes away. One trip there would cost $6.40. Multiply that by 52 weekly shopping trips per year and that’s $332.80, or roughly 3 percent of a $10,000 yearly income (think $1,300 if you make $40,000) in grocery related expenses, not counting the groceries. To be fair, it’s less expensive to purchase a day-pass at $4.80, which comes out to $249.60 a year.

“Or you take one bus, which can be a sort of circuitous route, and you have a pretty significant walk to get to the store and a significant walk back,” Leibowitz says. “Plus you need to get up the hill if you live on South 7th or anywhere on top of the hills at Cayce Place. It’s a pretty serious walk. For elderly or disabled or mobility limited residents or parents with young families, this is part of the concern, that access is not just the distance between point A and B.” 

Leibowitz knows all of this because her group has been collecting stories from Nashvillians who have trouble getting to and from the store for a project called “Grocery Stories.” Here’s an unattributed sample, collected at last summer’s Edgehill Food Awareness Cookout, from the R/S website: 

“Kroger is way out. It is too far. We have to get someone to drive us to the store, and then we have to pay them or buy them something at the store. If no one can take me, then I have to ride the bus … and then I can only buy a little bit of groceries because it’s too much to carry. It’s hard for me to do this with a toddler in tow. We really need a grocery store here!” 

The trouble and expense of simply getting to and from the store can often lead to residents settling for what’s around the corner: convenience stores and fast food places. 

“That’s where you get into the difficulty is that these residents want affordable healthy food. The food that’s available, if it’s produce or meat, it’s often spoiled or rancid or withered,” Leibowitz says. “There are often expired items on store shelves. I’ve heard stories about green fish sticks, a lot of food poisoning. I think there is a desire for dignity in the food shopping experience like a lot of other people have.”

The parallel problem is that the only other options are often for food that is terribly unhealthy for you. 

“Along with food deserts, there’s also something called a food swamp,” says Winne. “That means apart from the fact that a neighborhood doesn’t have any grocery stores, it also has way too many fast food places.” 

And of course, unhealthy eating habits on a mass scale (like an entire densely populated neighborhood) can lead to major public health problems — diabetes, childhood obesity, etc. — an eventuality that has not gone unnoticed by city government. 

In December, Metro Councilwoman Erica Gilmore — who represents District 19, which includes the bulk of the North Nashville food desert — sponsored a bill to create a formal Metro Nashville Food Policy Council, which would focus on issues like improving bus routes and creating tax incentive programs for major grocery chains to move into food-deserted neighborhoods. The bill passed first reading, but Gilmore moved to have it indefinitely deferred during its second reading on Dec. 21. She cited a similar initiative started by Karl Dean early last year as her reason for rescinding the bill. 

“I’m going to give it a year. If I don’t see things going the way they should, I’ll bring it back,” says Gilmore.


Grocery List, Part 2: Edgehill

Wedgewood and 12th Avenue South

“What do you care how much it is?” says a clerk from behind the register (lightheartedly, it’s worth noting), indicating that his customer is buying his snack with food stamps. “It’s free money.”

“It’s not free. When it’s gone, it’s gone, isn’t it?” the customer replies.

Leibowitz says that Edgehill is perhaps the worst food desert in the whole city. That may be because the nearest major supermarket is two miles away, or the fact that all that really remains, as far as affordable food retail goes, are a few closet-sized beer-and-chips places like this one. Then again, it could be how far the neighborhood’s grocery availability has fallen since federal urban renewal programs in the 1960s and 1970s chopped it up, rerouted the streets, replaced houses with the Edgehill Homes public housing development, and ran the interstate through. 

“Edgehill was, acre-wise, at one time the largest urban renewal program in the United States,” says the Rev. Bill Barnes, founding pastor of the Edgehill United Methodist Church, cofounder of the Organized Neighbors of Edgehill and, until last year, a Nashville MTA Board member. “In that process, 15 groceries were torn down.”

Barnes said subsequent efforts to bring grocery stores back to the neighborhood have repeatedly failed. The most notable, perhaps, was the space at 1121 12th Avenue South. 

“That corner of 12th and Edgehill, this was a fairly thriving commercial center. There was a department store. Deford Bailey, the Grand Ole Opry guy, had a shoe shop there. It was all demolished,” Barnes says. “Twenty-three-hundred families were dislocated in that process. So what happened was that that property at 12th and Edgehill was set aside, purchased by Winn-Dixie.” 

Which quickly turned into a failed Winn-Dixie to a failed Piggly Wiggly to a failed series of off-brand stores before it eventually failed altogether. It is now unoccupied. 

Leftover here are a scattering of little convenience stores, none of which have much to offer in the way of nutrition. Take this one, by way of example, where I’ve only been able to find pasta, beans, tomato sauce, cheese, lunchmeat and coffee. 


Grocery List, Parts 3 and 4

Napier: Lafayette Street

Cayce: Shelby and South 6th Street

These final two stores, both under the same brand name, are by far the least depressing of this whole trip. I say that even taking into consideration the fact that one of them has an entire produce aisle completely bare except for a couple sad bags of onions, a small pile of lemon and lime juice in lemon and lime-shaped plastic bottles, and for some reason three or four caramel apple-making kits. Luckily there’s a full produce section on the other side of the store. 

Other than that, it’s a resounding success in Napier and East Nashville. The two stores here are, generally speaking, well-lighted, adequately stocked even when it came to produce (though the selection doesn’t live up to a typical middle-of-the-road supermarket so don’t expect to find, like, kale or anything there), and run by very helpful, very polite employees.

As for the list, they both have everything except for the cucumbers.  


Going shopping 

To illustrate how difficult it can be to get to a full-service grocery store from a food desert neighborhood, I did it myself. My “home,” for the purposes of this narrative, was the JC Napier apartments on Lafayette Street, just south of downtown Nashville. From there, I had two choices: the Kroger at 800 Monroe or the one at Franklin and Kirkwood. They’re both just under 3 miles away, and both require two buses from Napier. 

9:11 a.m.

Southeast corner of Wharf and Lafayette

The No. 15 bus, which will take me to Music City Central downtown, where I will then pick up the No. 8 bus, backtracking south (the route looks like a “V”), to get to the Kroger on Franklin, arrives on time. It’s a happy surprise because the temperature outside is about 20 degrees. Getting on, I reflexively purchase a one-way pass and almost immediately realize it’s a mistake. This is a four-bus trip that will now cost me $6.40. Had I bought a day pass, it would have only been $4.80. 


Carlton H. Petway Sr. Waiting Room at Music City Central

My No. 15 arrives at 9:20, on time, but still 10 minutes too late for the No. 8. The next one leaves at 10:25.


Bay 9 at Music City Central

The bus pulls into bay 9, on the upper level of the station, five minutes before it’s supposed to leave, thankfully, because it’s much warmer here than the inside of the waiting room. 


Bay 9 at Music City Central

Bus departs.


Franklin and Kirkwood

I arrive at the bus stop nearest Kroger. The next bus, taking me back downtown, will get here at 11:15, giving me 33 minutes to walk there, shop, check out and walk back. Subtract eight minutes walking time and an optimistic estimate of five minutes check out time and that leaves 20 minutes of pure shopping time.

I walk around the store a bit, pricing food staples. Not bad. I can get 10 large cans of tomato sauce for $10. Potatoes: 89 cents per pound. Onions: 99 cents per pound. Ground beef: $1.98 per pound. 

Much, much better produce selection here than the corner stores I’ve been checking out.


Franklin and Kirkwood

I’m giving myself lots of time to catch the returning No. 8 because if, by some off chance, it arrives early, the next one doesn’t come until 12:30 p.m.


Franklin and Kirkwood

Bus arrives.


No. 8 Bus

I notice another passenger, who got on with me, carrying grocery bags. He gets off at Eighth and Wedgewood before I get a chance to ask him what his final destination is. By the time we pull away, he’s walked the equivalent of about two blocks westbound on Wedgewood. 


Bay 9 at Music City Central

My bus gets here at the exact same time that the southbound No. 15 is scheduled to depart. I race downstairs to bay 22 — not carrying 20 pounds of groceries, mind you — to try catching it, but I’m too late. Next bus: 11:56. 


Bay 22 at Music City Central

Bus arrives. Thank God.


Bus departs.


Lafayette and Wharf

Bus arrives back “home” and I disembark.

Travel time: 2 hours, 58 minutes

Cost of travel: $6.40, though it should have been $4.80. Either way, I keep in mind that despite how much financial sense it makes to use a bus all of the time instead of a car, that’s not the case for single trips like this. Three miles in my car would have come out to about 30 cents in gas money.  




12 Comments on this post:

By: PKVol on 1/17/11 at 9:14

Wouldn't it make sense for MTA to create a 'Grocery Route' from these areas to run 2 days per week at a round trip cost of about $3.00 per rider. Let it run every two hours and have some sort of rack system where the rider can let the groceries ride on the return trip.

By: livinglively57 on 1/17/11 at 9:44

Excellent idea, PKVol. 2-3 days per week, have shuttle buses running every 2 hours to the closet grocery store. $3.00 roundtrip pass or a $12 monthly pass.
It's a very bad catch-22 scenario...these areas need grocery stores but groceries do not want to open in high-crime areas where they are subject to a higher incidence of robbery, shoplifting and vandalism.
Nashville created a "Gulch route" using shuttles...create a "grocery route" for the urban areas. There are children and elderly living there that need to eat.

By: MAmom on 1/17/11 at 11:02

Excellent Idea, PKVol.

By: frodo on 1/17/11 at 11:09

I don't agree with Winne's definition of a food desert, requiring "high rates of poverty" and a half-mile trip to the grocery for urban dwellers but a ten-mile drive for others. A desert is a desert, no matter who lives there.

Ah, but this definition works well for Councilwoman Gilmore as she continues to cater to her North Nashville base and pay little more than lip service to the balance of her district.

Let's be concerned about food deserts, but let's not spin the definition, forcing a middle-income family living in rural north Davidson, ten miles from the nearest Kroger, to subsidize the inconvenience of a slightly poorer family in North Nashville. This is the same-old same-old political game.

By: livinglively57 on 1/17/11 at 1:01

frodo, I know where you're coming from. My thought is this...that MTA is supposed to serve the needs of Nashville/Davidson County citizens who need the bus lines. Create special "grocery routes" for those living in the "food deserts"...it would not have to be free BUT one would be able to buy bus passes at a special rate for convenient transportation to the nearest grocery stores.

By: frodo on 1/17/11 at 1:28

Yes, lively, I think that is as good a suggestion as I've heard. Of course, MTA will need money from somewhere to make it work. And that will probably come from Metro tax revenues. I'd be for it if someone could tell me how MTA or Metro will cut back on other expenses to make it happen.

By: FLeFew on 1/17/11 at 3:28

The neighborhoods that you describe have one thing in common ... high rates of crime. The Winn Dixie finally gave up after more robberies and shoplifting than you can imagine. Police cannot be everywhere even though there was a precinct station across the street from the store. The neighbors are going to stand up and let the hoodlums that they will not tolerate the lack of civility in their neighborhoods.

By: RUSerious on 1/17/11 at 5:38

Really? More subsidies...imagine that. At what point are these "poor" people going to step-up and start accepting responsibilty for themselves. The "poor me" blame everyone attitude that most of these people possess is why they continue to live in these declining areas. Now this so-called expert is recommending MTA have a special grocery route.......you can't be serious. How about they take the normal connecting routes they would have to take to end up at the grocery store. The enabling attitude of the these doo-gooder bleading hearts is what has lead to these "poor" people not being able to fend for themselves. It's always the usual suspects, welfare, food stamps, subsidised electric and water bills......when is enough enough ???

How about we get them chauffeur driven limousines, after all they are entitled to it right.

By: Siobhanne on 1/17/11 at 10:25

I currently work in 3 large grocery chains and also in a few smaller independent stores representing brand products. The three chain stores have either closed down their stores in these areas or have declined to open new stores in these areas. The crime rate, vandalism, panhandling, people loitering in parking lot and shoplifting are huge factors in this. Additionally, the customers in these areas tend to be primarily food stamp recipients. Food stamp recipients tend to go through their benefits the first week or so of the month. In order to make a profit, stores need to make sales quotas throughout the month, not just the first week or so. Expenses will accrue whether or not paying customers walk in the door (Electricity, vendors, lease, employee expenses etc). If there are not enough cash paying customers to make up the difference, it is not profitable for the store. Cash paying customers have more choices where they can shop (mobility and money) They prefer to shop in clean, stores and up to date stores that carry a wide variety of stock. They are often drawn to stores in the suburbs.

By: DREIFMA on 1/18/11 at 1:12

I am tired of hearing about the poor this and the poor that. Its nuts. The complaints about food stamps when they used to give out commodity foods, complaints about education and the need for more busing and every other program that robs the middle class through individual taxes and taxes on business that the middle class patronize.

It time for the poor to take charge of their lives, to guide their children, encourage education and discourage blaming their problems on other people. Excuses and not taking responsibility for the failure of their children is insane. People have to point this out. The news media talks a happy talk but doesnt shame the loser parents that are failing their children and their country.

Just wait till the country goes bankrupt which is not to far off when the Fed is buying Treasury bonds that the Chinese and the rest of the world are tired of buying, they have no hope of getting their money back. . There wont be any more busing, programs and probably no more school. Those that have not been encouraged to learn will have nowhere to go.

Its interesting that all stores are in business to make a profit, not to be a non profit distribution center. They bring us plenty from all over the US and our neighboring countries. Just wait till you take the profit out and let the state run the stores, One week there will be bread, another week maybe some milk, another some meat. Thats how government run goes. Think about what you are bitching about. You might just lose it and the replacement will be worse, guaranteed.

Thinking revolution, well remember Sparticus. He caused the Roman Republic some difficulty, but eventually they were defeated but the Triumvirate of Caesar, Crassus and Pompey. The survivors, all six thousand were crucified along the Appian Way from Capua to Rome. People will likely go with that rather than an individual trial for each after all that mess.

By: livinglively57 on 1/18/11 at 9:01

I'm not an expert by any means, nor did I claim to be one. I'm not a bleeding heart either.,.personally, I applaud the State of Oregon who is considering mandatory drug testing to receive all welfare benefits. I think our state needs to consider that, as well.

What I was saying, is that MTA is there to serve Davidson County citizens. And yes, people who receive welfare benefits are citizens of this county. Most users of MTA are the poorer citizens of our county. MTA is providing a FREE shuttle all day long between the Gulch and Downtown. If they can do that, they should be able to provide a "reduced-rate" shuttle, several times weekly from the "food deserts" to a nearby grocery store. Not everyone who lives in the projects is a gun-totin' thug...there are elderly and young mothers with children.

Yes, there is a certain segment that live in these areas that need to be admonished for the way they "raise" their children. Yes, there are girls having babies for those checks. Yes, everything you think goes on there...does go on there. But, your tax dollars are going there anyway...I'd rather mine go for a "hand-up" than a "hand-out".
They will never have a grocery built in those areas...as a poster said above, the problems with theft, vandalism, loitering, etc....are just too great for any business to want to get into. We could go into a whole diatribe of what is wrong with our welfare system...we would probably all be in 100% agreement (imagine that on this board!) but the fact is, the whole system is broken and it's going to take some real guts from government to even begin to fix it.

I'm just saying....a couple of shuttle buses, twice weekly, special fares so that one can make more trips...just so folks can have decent food.

By: shinestx on 1/18/11 at 9:26

That's the first thing I thought of Livinglively. Every day, dozens of MTA buses roll past the Farmers' Market and at least twenty grocery stores on the fringes of downtown. If some fares need to be subsidized, then perhaps that should be done. However, I still wonder how much of a priority many of these people put on balanced nutrition. I mean, it's remarkable how many of America's poor are obese. They're getting food, and the mark-up on processed foods is much greater than that for fresh food bought at the market. Comes down to priorities, and many of these people (2nd/3rd/4th generation wards of the state) simply never learned the basics of good eating.