Ajuba Joy walks into her Rochester Heights house from her garden, where she has just picked some basil for the pot of beans simmering on the stove.
“Gardening helps connect you to your food. Gardening is an empowering experience,” she said.
Joy has no problem getting to the grocery store to buy fresh produce. But not everyone in her neighborhood has that luxury.
The nearest chain grocery stores, Food Lion on Cross Link Road and Kroger on Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard, are a long walk for many residents in southeast Raleigh, a place where SUVs and McMansions are nowhere to be found. The nearest Farmer’s Market operates out of City Plaza downtown — a 40-minute walk — and only on Wednesdays during lunch April through October.
“The issue is lack of access,” said Joy, the director of a small non-profit called Root1 (Recognizing Our Own Talent). “If you don’t have a car, it’s difficult. If you don’t have money it’s difficult to get really good food.”
In Joy’s neighborhood, there are two convenience stores, but they sell salt, sugar, tobacco, alcohol and gas. Once upon a time, there was a market on Bragg and State Streets that sold fresh produce on Saturdays. The place was packed every week, Joy said, but the market is long gone.
“Anybody walking … can’t get fresh food. It’s difficult to get on a bus. You might live four blocks from store [but the bus] takes you back downtown. That’s hard for a 70-year-old lady or a young woman that has three small children.”
To make finding fresh food a little easier, Joy has turned her household garden into a community garden, one of a few popping up in an effort to provide access to fresh foods.
She’s not the only one noticing the “food desert” in Southeast Raleigh.
A WakeMed-based group called Advocates for Health in Action is made up of 50 organizations in the county working to increase food and physical fitness access. They have created a Community Assets map to pinpoint food and physical activity options throughout Wake County.
Laura Aiken, the group’s executive director, said the map shows a definite food desert in southeast Raleigh.
“Just by looking at a data points, the food deserts don’t necessarily glare out at you, but as you look closely, and you inventory the places that provide food, you see that healthy food is not what they provide,” she said. “We even found in going to the Kroger or the Food Lion down there, their produce selection is much less than other parts of the county.”
Limited access isn’t unique to Raleigh. A USDA Economic Research Service report to Congress on food deserts found that 11.5 million people, or 4.1 percent of the total U.S. population, “live in low-income areas more than 1 mile from a supermarket.”
According to the CDC study, “A Systematic Review of Food Deserts,” there is more limited access to food in areas with more African-American or Latino residents and more low-income residents. The study also found that distance to supermarkets is farther for those living in low-income areas and for areas with a high proportion of African Americans.
So what causes these vacuums? National attention shed on this issue often finds mixed reasons for grocery stores not to locate in lower-income neighborhoods – and not all those reasons are based on fact. Some grocery executives worry about crime rates, some argue there might be less profit in a low-income area.
It’s not a question of space. There are multiple available lots zoned for business, said Lawrence Wray, Raleigh’s assistant city manager. The problem is economics, he said, because the big chain grocery stores usually built in 35,000 to 40,000 square feet of space.
“[Stores] have got to have families going in there spending $300-$400 month and there’s got to be a lot of families doing that,” he said. “Those folks don’t have the income to do the purchasing to support that.”
Wray said it took 15 years to get the Winn-Dixie in the Southeast Shopping Center, and it didn’t stay long. Food Lion is there now, but he questions how long it will remain. He suggested a small store, offering more market-style with fresh foods might be more financially feasible for its owner.
“I’ve been trying to find a small grocery store with 5,000 to 10,000 square feet that would be willing to locate in southeast Raleigh and trying to find some money to help do that,” he said. “But you don’t have the people interested in going into that business to try to make it.”
However, business is just fine for Larry’s Supermarket, an independent store on Milburnie Road that has operated for more than 40 years.
Manager Mike Harris said the 4,000-square-foot store has survived because it sells a lot of items people can’t find anywhere else, especially southern foods and seasoned meats such as fat back, country cured ham, ham hops and smoked hog jowl.
The store receives locally grown produce six days per week from a distributor at the State Farmer’s Market, including two southern favorites — collards and cabbage.
“The way the economy is now, it’s tougher for stores located on this side of town to survive,” said Harris, whose customers tend to arrive on foot or by bus. “But we’re holding on and our business is pretty good.”
Joy recalls vendors coming by her neighborhood to sell produce off the back of their trucks. You don’t see that anymore, she said.
Wray said peddler’s licenses are still available and issued to those who request them, but added that some vendors have reported robberies in that area.
Peddlers or grocers – it’s not just about fair access. North Carolina is fifth in the nation for obesity rates, something that bothers Rita Anita Linger, head of the Southeast Raleigh Association.
“If you’re stuffing yourself with vegetables and fruits, your blood pressure will be normal, and diabetes won’t be something to worry about,” she said.
Instead, Linger spends a lot of time worrying about it, and working on healthcare initiatives in the area to reduce obesity and make sure residents are connecting with healthcare professionals.
Access to fresh food “is connected to something very serious. If you’re not eating well, you’re not going to be well,” Linger said. “There are some stores trying to do their best, but [it’s] definitely not enough.”
Making changes isn’t always a simple as it seems. For example, Aiken is hoping to connect convenience stores in Fuquay-Varina with farmer’s market vendors so they can sell some of their excess goods. But there are legal barriers to reselling products.
A grant has helped the Western Wake Farmer’s Market accept EBT cards (food stamps), but Aiken said it was a laborious process and getting those accepted at other area farmer’s markets will take time.
Now that it’s October, Joy’s garden is down to a few collards. Next year, she plans to till under more grass so she can expand, hopefully making it easier for some of the nearby residents to get fresh food while agencies such as Advocates for Health in Action work on other changes. She hopes her garden will inspire others to start more.
“I wanted to connect with the community on a natural level, and I thought this would do it, would be a good way to bring people together,” she said. “I want to raise the energy of life in our community.”
“It’s a very small garden, but we have big dreams.”