City of Birmingham

Getting by in Food Deserts: Mobile Grocery Stores, Neighborhood Farms Help Residents Find Fresh Food

Dominique Villanueva and her daughter work in their neighborhood garden in Fountain Heights. (Source: Cheryl Slocum)

Roland Washington checked off the names of his neighbors who had come to buy groceries at the mobile store that twice a month visits his apartment complex near Tarrant, an area of Birmingham that has few to no options for fresh food.

The mini crowd-control task for which Washington volunteers his time is managing the people who come to take advantage of the wholesale-priced fresh produce, meat and other food provisions sold on a first come-first serve basis. He makes sure no more than a few people enter the trailer at a time.

For Washington and his neighbors, that mobile grocery store is the difference between getting fresh vegetables and fruits or not. The Corner Market, the mobile grocery store run through a program of the Community Food Bank of Central Alabama, is an initiative aimed at relieving the difficulties faced by people who live in food deserts. Food deserts are defined as areas where at least 500 people live more than half a mile from a full-service grocery store.

The lack of access to fresh food is a problem faced by people across the world. About 23.5 million people in the U.S. live in food deserts, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture report. Nearly half of them are low-income.

Closer to home, almost 2 million people in Alabama live in food deserts, according to a 2015 report on food access by the The Food Trust. In Jefferson County, that number is 205,657.

In Birmingham, 69 percent of residents live far enough away from a grocery store to make it difficult for them to obtain fresh food, Mayor Randall Woodfin told the City Council in a meeting this spring. He said part of all nine council districts exist in a food desert.

The Corner Market and other mobile grocery stores are one way communities are trying to alleviate the difficulties for people who live in food deserts.

Launched in August 2017, the grocery store-on-wheels, a 24-foot trailer, is stocked with shelves of fresh fruits and vegetables, meats, dairy products, bread and other pantry staples,

Washington immediately took advantage of the mobile grocery when it began operating in his community.

Roland Washington shops at the Corner Market, one of the mobile stores that go into food deserts. (Source: Cheryl Slocum)

“I’ve been coming ever since they’ve been here,” said Washington. “They come every two weeks, and depending on what you buy, you can almost make through until the next time.

“I buy the vegetables and bread, milk and sometimes eggs,” Washington said. “I just bought pears and peaches and grapes today.” On a doctor’s advice, Washington tries to eat mostly fresh or frozen foods and avoids packaged and canned foods.

Kathryn Strickland, executive director of the Community Food Bank of Central Alabama, said the decision to launch a mobile grocery program came out of realizing there was a need for something beyond the food pantry and emergency food help her group provides.

“This is a departure for us to operate a store, but a lot of people have Snap benefits but don’t have anywhere nearby to spend them,” Strickland said.  “We are looking to serve residents who don’t have reliable transportation and have difficulty getting access to full-service grocery stores. The aim of the project is the help make food not only accessible but also affordable.”

Without the mobile grocery service, Roland Washington would be forced to spend part of his food budget on transportation to get to the few shopping options that do exist in the area. The closest grocery market, Food Outlet, is three miles away. Washington, who doesn’t own a car, said he must rely on other people or taxis to take him to stores.

There is a Walmart Supercenter six miles away, and while the complex Washington lives in does offer van service once a week, the vehicle only seats 12 passengers; there are 200 units in the complex.

“Well, if you don’t have a car, you have to pay people $5 to $10 to go ride to the grocery store. So this (mobile) store is a blessing in a lot of ways,” Washington said. “A lot of people don’t have cars. You have to depend on your friends.”

”The level of enthusiasm (for the Corner Market) from among the residents we serve has been extraordinary,” Strickland said. “When we first opened, we had one resident who said: ‘I haven’t been able to go to the grocery store in over a month, thank you so much for coming.’

“People said things like, ‘As a child I used to love to eat fresh fruit, but I haven’t eaten any for years because it’s so expensive and I can’t get to anywhere that sells it.’”

Healthy Foods Ordinance

In July, the Birmingham City Council passed an ordinance to address some of the issues facing the city’s food desert communities. Called the Healthy Foods Ordinance, the new rules provide incentives to encourage grocery markets to open in designated areas by easing parking and square footage requirements.

In May, the council allocated $500,000 for incentives to attract new grocers. That fund will be used to help offset costs associated with opening grocery markets, including hiring and stocking costs.

Map shows areas that would be covered by the food desert ordinance. (Source: City of Birmingham)

The Healthy Foods Ordinance also will restrict the opening of new dollar discount stores within the areas the council designated as a Healthy Food Overlay District. Those dollar stores were identified as offering few if any healthy food choices and deterring full-service grocery stores from opening in the areas where they proliferate.

In designating food desert areas, no new dollar store will be permitted to open with one mile of an existing dollar discount store. Alabama ranks as one of the five states with the most dollar stores per capita — more than 2 per 10,000 residents.

The Birmingham City Council also relaxed zoning rules to allow mobile grocers to operate in residential areas as long as they do so 1,000 feet or farther from a brick and mortar food store. The mobile groceries also must not operate in the same place for more than three days in a row.

Strickland said her group likely will want to expand the Corner Market concept to more areas, but she explained that doing so would require community buy-in. “We will want to host meetings with neighborhoods to find out if they are interested in this service,” she said.

Currently, the Corner Market mobile grocery store visits five locations — Fountain Heights, Pratt City and Tarrant, as well as Dora and Oakman in Walker County.

The new Healthy Foods Ordinance also will increase the number of days that farmers markets and stands can operate, allow community gardens to sell produce, operate greenhouses and store compost on site.

A Home-Grown Garden

In Fountain Heights, access to fresh food is a challenge that motivated Dominique Villanueva and her husband to help contribute to the solution. They moved to Fountain Heights in 2016 and Villanueva said she noticed that it was difficult to find produce in any of the three convenience stores in the neighborhood. Villanueva said that, at the convenience store closest to her home, she found a loaf of bread selling for $8.

The closest grocery stories are a Publix in midtown Birmingham that opened in February 2018, which is about three miles from Fountain Heights, and a Piggly Wiggly that is about 2½ miles away, but she said that one is not easy to get to.

In response to the lack of healthy, fresh food nearby, Villanueva planted a garden in her yard that quickly turned into a bigger community-based project.

“When we moved here, we started a garden in the front of our house to feed ourselves.” said Villanueva, “We often had neighbors walk by and say, ‘Oh! What’s that? Tomatoes? Are those peppers? What’s that growing? What else is going on here?’ And there was a lot of excitement about what was being grown.”

With an abundance of produce, the Villanueva’s were able to give food to their neighbors. From that came the idea to expand the growing area with the intent of supplying more people in the Fountain Heights community.

The following year, the couple took over a vacant lot next to their home through the Birmingham Land Bank Authority and planted enough vegetables and produce to supply 15 families weekly.

Tomatoes and peppers from Dominique Villanueva ‘s garden. (Source: Cheryl Slocum)

The authority allows homeowners to lease vacant lots next to their homes for two years. According to the authority’s website, at the end of two years, the authority will assist in clearing the title so the homeowner will own the lot free and clear. Villanueva is in the process of working to complete that final step and has been met with some potential roadblocks. Their intention is to continue to use the space for their farm.

“There is danger we won’t have a farm on this next door property next year, but does that mean we would stop? No. Not everyone is in a position to do this work, but I am committed and my family is here, this is where we live,” she said.

Describing the way they distribute produce in the neighborhood as a modified community supported agriculture concept, or CSA, Villanueva said, “We have always worked with the mindset that we are feeding our neighbors first, whether they can pay or not. I don’t look at a check stub. I just trust my neighbors.”

Everyone receives the same amount of food, but there are three pricing levels. One tier, called the Free Spirit is for anyone who is unable to pay for the food; the second tier, the Foodie, cost $5, which Villanueva said just about covers the cost of growing the food; and the third tier, Friend of a Friend, is priced at $10 and is set up for people who wish to make a donation.

Depending on what’s ready, the weekly bag could include about 5 pounds of a variety of tomatoes plus bell peppers, poblanos, and jalapeños, kale or collards, okra and herbs. Villanueva operates the farm year-round.

Villanueva said her vision for moving the Fountain Heights neighborhood out of its food desert state might include a variety of solutions.

“I hope that there could be five more farms like ours and I have also been sending people home with their own plants that they can grow,” she said.  Villanueva also sees, in addition to the mobile grocery store that comes to the neighborhood once a month, the potential for a neighborhood food coop.

“If we can’t grow it for ourselves, then let’s get our basics that we know we use a lot of and buy them in bulk and split it,” she said.