MEMPHIS, Tenn.– The time it takes you to drive from Memphis to Little Rock, Arkansas. That’s how long it takes one Memphis man to just get fresh, affordable food.
James Riley was patiently waiting for a bus with his groceries next to him on a Friday afternoon. Riley said he lives in Smokey City in North Memphis.
The Kroger at Cleveland and Poplar is one of the closest grocery stores. It’s 1.8 miles away from his home — too far for the 66-year-old to walk. He said he’s left with a long bus ride.
“Catch one up there to Jackson and Watkins, and then one from Jackson and Watkins to Jackson and Ayres,” Riley explained.
It takes him about two and a half hours, round trip.
Riley didn’t always have to take the time to do it. He used to have a grocery store in his neighborhood, but it closed and left gas stations, dollar stores, and corner stores as his only options.
Unfortunately, Riley isn’t the only one who lives in what the USDA calls a food desert. It’s a low-income area where many residents don’t have access to affordable, healthy food.
The neighborhoods are historically marginalized, many residents don’t have transportation, and they’re where mostly people of color live. They include parts of North and South Memphis, and recently, Binghampton was added back to the list.
Shawn Massey with the Shopping Center Group said he started working about 15 years ago to help recruit a grocery to open in Binghampton. A Save A Lot grocery opened in the Gateway Center off Sam Cooper.
Massey said the Save A Lot was doing “okay” at that location — that is, until the company underwent restructuring and closed hundreds of stores nationwide, including the one in Binghampton.
“We could not find a grocery store that could replace the rent for Save A Lot. Much of them wanted a much lower rent, they wanted no risk, and that wasn’t always possible,” Massey said.
The Junior Achievement of Memphis and the Mid-South has since moved into Save A Lot’s space, but Massey said it hasn’t stopped efforts to get another grocery store in Binghampton.
He said the average supermarket operates on a one to two percent profit margin. It must be sustainable for at least a decade to recoup any profit. The retailer will extensively study the area and look at things like population, driving time, and demographics.
They also look at the crime rate and consider insurance and security costs. He said high crime areas to them could mean more theft and shoplifting. If they think it’s too risky, they look elsewhere.
“I get a lot of nos, and every no is a step closer to a yes,” he said.
Until that yes happens, neighborhoods are finding their own solutions.
“I grew up in this neighborhood. We never had anything like this going on,” Latonya Hunt said.
She manages the garden for the Carpenter Art Garden, a non-profit dedicated to working with children in Binghampton.
The garden staff, which includes two adults and four teens, plants all kinds of veggies and then sells them to the community.
“They love it, because we don’t have a neighborhood grocery store anymore. We sell to them cheap,” she said.
She said all the produce is organic.
“It’s important in a black community. I’m going to say it like that because it’s right here. You don’t have to go nowhere. You don’t have to stress about it if you don’t have,” Hunt said.
As of 2020, more than 200,000 people in Shelby County are considered food insecure. Massey said grocery stores can change that and help build quality neighborhoods.
“It makes a big difference,” he said.
He said he’s been working with a minority-owned grocery store up North that’s looking at opening one to five stores in Memphis. He said the city will have to offer incentives just like they have in the
Like at the Superlo on Lamar. When Kroger moved out several years ago, it donated the building to the city, and the city then donated it to Superlo to convince them to move in.
“I think the city would step up if they found a retailer that was willing to go in there and take a risk,” Massey said.