January 10, 2018 Djuan Coleon

The Death of the Black Community: No Grocery Stores

In Birmingham, Alabama an IBM smarter cities study revealed that 80% of the population was living in a food desert. Out of the 151 square miles of the City of Birmingham, 43 square miles is considered to be a “Food Desert”, where over 88,000 people reside. 83% of the residents impacted are Black and Latino with no access to fresh food.  The USDA considers an area a Food Desert where a person has to travel over a mile to get access to fresh fruits, vegetables, whole foods from supermarkets and farmer’s markets. Birmingham is not an anomaly, all across the country the USDA has identified that communities of color are disproportionately cut off from access to fresh food in a food desert. The data shows that if your community doesn’t have actual real grocery stores not Dollar General stores that don’t stock fresh food, not corner stores that stock unhealthy sugary junk food, but actual major grocery store chains, your community will not attract any other business development. The community will be more than a “food desert” but an economic wasteland.

   Communities without access to fresh food often have other systemic issues of poverty, chronic health issues and low access to public transportation. Life expectancy is significantly lower. The stress of poverty and access to jobs are other connected issues. How is this happening? Well large chain groceries avoid communities designated as “food deserts” like the plague. You would think it would be the opposite but fresh food is not a human right, having a Publix, Whole Foods or Sprouts is a business luxury or privilege for a community. Supermarkets have low profit margins, 1 to 2% and may take up to 10 years to recoup investments. Building a new grocery store in a high poverty area or an area that is perceived to not be able to be able to support a large retail grocery store is seen as “too risky” to invest. Federal, state and local governments have been given grants, subsidies and incentives to grocery stores to come into these areas but the ball seems to keep getting dropped. The priority in some cases locally may be to build a new stadium versus trying to make sure citizens can get fresh vegetables from a new grocery store.

food-deserts (1)

— An Associated Press analysis found that of 73 large grocery stores that opened in Alabama between 2011 and the beginning of 2015, 11 opened in areas that the U.S. Department of Agriculture considers a food desert — or an area with limited access to supermarkets that is home to a relatively high number of low-income residents. (full article “Grocery store chains avoid opening in Alabama food deserts“)

— The nation’s top 75 food retailers opened almost 10,300 stores in new locations from 2011 to the first quarter of 2015, 2,434 of which were grocery stores. Take away convenience stores and “dollar stores,” which generally don’t sell fresh fruits, vegetables or meat, and barely more than 250 of the new supermarkets were in so-called food deserts, or neighborhoods without stores that offer fresh produce and meats.

— As the largest supermarket chains have been slow to build in food deserts, the so-called dollar stores have multiplied rapidly. Three chains — Dollar General (DG), Family Dollar and Dollar Tree (DLTR) — made up two-thirds of new stores in food deserts. (full article “Big grocery chains leave U.S. “food deserts” parched“)


As stated earlier getting a Dollar General in an area that doesn’t have access to fresh food does not solve the problem because these stores don’t stock fresh food. If we overlay a map of the areas that are food deserts we will see these are the same areas where you find large segments of the population that live below the poverty line.

The Healthy Food Financing Initiative has distributed more than $500 million to increase fresh food access—at the same time that funding for food stamps, a program proven to improve the lives of people living in poverty, was cut to pre-stimulus levels. Since the reductions, food stamp recipients have received just $1.40 per meal per family member. (full article “Food Deserts Aren’t the Problem“)

People still have to be able to afford the fresh food and fresh organic food is expensive. For example in Birmingham, Alabama over 30% of the population lives below the poverty line. So not having access to fresh food is a symptom of the greater issues of poverty and the lack of ownership of grocer store chains.  Grocery stores have a business model and format they don’t want to risk deviation from.

“Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack believes stores that open in food deserts need to be attuned to the particulars of their communities to succeed.

“You have to cater to the people who live there. You have to know who they are,” Vilsack said during a recent visit to Orlando.

That’s where the large supermarket chains often run into trouble, since they have rigid formats that often miss the nuances of a community, said Jeff Brown, CEO of Brown’s Super Stores in the Philadelphia area.

“They’re not selling what they should be selling because they don’t understand,” said Brown, whose company has seven stores in underserved neighborhoods.” (article “Grocery chains leave food deserts barren, AP analysis finds“)

According to a report by The Food Trust, access to healthy food also impacts schools and school aged children living in food deserts.

“While research has more frequently examined access to healthy food relative to the home, some recent studies have sought to explore the food environment around schools.156, 188-190 The food environment in many low-income urban communities often comprises primarily convenience stores and smaller markets. Convenience stores located in close proximity to middle and high schools represent an important—yet predominantly unhealthy—source of food for youth, and can have a substantial impact on diets regardless of the quality of food provided in schools.” – The Food Trust (link to full report)

Are there any Black owned large retail grocery store chains that understand the nuances of the black community that could bridge the gap?

The Black Community needs grocery store reparations, there are only 2 black owned grocery chains


#1 – Calhoun Foods Grocery in Montgomery, AL: has more than five supermarkets and over 300 employees throughout Alabama. It was founded by Greg Calhoun in 1984.

#2 – Apples and Oranges Fresh Market in Baltimore, MD: Michele Speaks-March and her husband went from the funeral business to the grocery business in 2013. Their goal is to provide healthy food choices for residents of East Baltimore and the surrounding area. (full article “The Last Two Black Owned Grocery Stores in America”

Lack of business ownership in grocery retailing is as big as a problem as poverty in these food deserts. It appears there is nothing that can be done. The politicians have been asked to fund programs but the programs can’t make for profit businesses take risks that their business models don’t work for.


Publix is often an anchor tenant as part of a larger shopping center development. The Business model doesn’t fit low-income areas and low income areas are food deserts which are predominately black communities.  Business Development in a community helps brings jobs, large retail grocery stores can bring 150 jobs to a community. These shopping center developments that often have regional and national grocery store chains bring jobs and increase the housing values of the surrounding neighborhoods. Nothing lives long in the desert and if there is no viable solution for food deserts then these mostly black communities will die out or get gentrified with residents who fit the business model to support grocery stores and other businesses.


We want to hear from you!