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Our Encroaching Food Desert


Earlier this week, we learned that the grocery store we frequent will soon close. The same is true for other locations of the same chain in our area.

This store is not "sexy." It doesn't have a cafe or a pharmacy or a sushi chef. On the other hand, it doesn't have a police guard, bulletproof cash register windows or display shelves made of cardboard boxes. It's just your average utilitarian grocery store. The kind you probably shopped at when you were a kid. A supermarket...but just barely.

We like it because the prices are exactly right. The nearest competitor prides itself on its "sales," but otherwise, their prices are at least 5% higher than this one, across the board.

For some background, I pay most of the bills for our household, but Carl takes care of electric, water, and groceries. We've reached a state of detente with regard to our widely differing diets: He gives me $20 a week to stock up on my semi-healthy frozen entrees and other items for lunch. On Sunday, the last day of his work week, he takes the bus from work to our grocery store, shops, and then calls me to pick him up. Then we go home and spend an hour or so putting food away and conversing about how much things cost and/or how much we saved. It's an arrangement that's worked well for a couple of years now.

With this store closing soon, we have to change all of this. If Carl continues shopping on Sunday afternoons, he will have to change venues. There's the aforementioned competitor, which he actively dislikes, and the big-box "Supercenter," which he actively loathes. That place has GREAT prices, but you hesitate to buy frozen food there because it will defrost by the time you get through the checkout line. It's also a considerable distance away, so Carl will have to call me before he starts shopping, and I will have to time it so that I don't pick him up too early, before he's done, or too late, making him wait in the crowded area outside the store.

The alternative would be changing Carl's shopping day to Monday. I come home from work and we go adventuring off to the next-nearest location of our preferred chain. It's not all that far away, and the store is actually a little bigger and more nicely laid out than the one where we've been shopping for five and a half years. It has the same prices and some of our friends shop there.

We also have a couple of dollar stores within walking distance of our house, so Carl and I have already agreed to stock up on whatever staples we can find there, to save money and time.

All told, this is a moderate inconvenience for us. More so for Carl, because he's extremely habit-bound and this switch (whatever it ultimately entails) is going to have him bitching and griping for at least a couple of months. We also have the spectre hanging over our heads of whether our favored chain will continue its cuts in the future, and how long it will stay in our area altogether. The writing seems to be on the wall.

How nice it would be if another chain would move into the building about to be vacated by "our" store -- one famous for low prices. There actually aren't all that many of those left. This is the "food desert" dilemma that has captured headlines since the economy tanked. It's been a problem for years, if not decades, but it's lately become pervasive among the entire working class, not just those who once represented the face of "extreme" poverty.

A food desert is an area with limited access to fresh, affordable food. Want some peaches, tomatoes or lettuce? If you live in a food desert, you have to drive more than 5 miles to find it, and when you do, it's often "pricey." If you don't have a car, it's an even bigger problem, because "decent" food stores are rarely located along bus lines. Those that are, are likely to come with the "amenities" of an urban area, such as high security, high prices and few services beyond the merchandise other than lottery tickets and check-cashing. The interior lighting is dimmer and the employees often surly. This is not a stereotype; it is something I have observed, as one who frequents these types of stores out of fiscal necessity.

People who live in food deserts and don't have their own transportation are more likely to shop at a convenience store. There, you can probably get pre-cooked food such as rotisserie chicken, and all the Hamburger Helper, instant potatoes and soda you may desire, and you can get some oranges or bananas, maybe -- priced about 40% higher than you'd find at a supermarket. In fact, everything is more expensive at the convenience store, even gum. Less fresh food, plenty of "affordable" glycemic carbs and off-brand cold cuts that are often past the expiration dates. Diabetes and hypertension are offered in abundance when you live in a food desert.

You spend a ton of money on bus fare, and then have to pick and choose what to buy, taking into consideration whether your bag will be too heavy to schlep home.

People have been paying attention to this issue and some efforts have been made to correct it. But I fear that once the economy improves past a certain point, things will go back the way they were -- quite possibly even before the first groundbreaking.

The conversation must continue.


How very disheartening. Food deserts are a reality in disenfranchised areas, like the inner city and also, in this country, in the far north and on first nations reserves. The prevalence of diabetes on reserves can be directly attributed to lack of access to healthy food.

I am so fortunate that I have two really good grocery stores within a 20 minute walk of my house. I shouldn't take that fact for granted.

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