Urban food deserts: Lack of large grocers a major inconvenience in many neighborhoods

April Jones, who lives in North Charleston's Accabee neighborhood, stocks up at the Save-A-Lot on Durant Avenue. She doesn't have a car, so was taking full advantage of a ride from her cousin. Jones lives in one of the area's 'food deserts,' where residents don't have access to a full-service grocery store. She usually has to take a bus to the Save-A-Lot, and a taxi home.

April Jones whizzed through the aisles at the Save-A-Lot on Durant Avenue, filling her cart with groceries.

The North Charleston resident said she was stocking up on food one day late last week, taking full of advantage of the ride home she would get from her cousin.

Jones, the mother of two children, doesn't have a car. She usually takes the bus to the store, and then a taxi home. Cab fare is about $10, and she has to pay an extra 25 cents for each bag of groceries.

"You've gotta do what you've gotta do," Jones said. "You've gotta eat."

Jones lives in an urban "food desert" in the Accabee neighborhood on the city's southern end, where she and her neighbors have limited access to healthy, reasonably priced food.

Area residents for years have identified lack of a full-service grocery store as their biggest concern. And city officials and leaders of local nonprofit groups say they are going to continue to push until they lure a full-service grocery store back to Shipwatch Square, at Rivers and McMillan avenues.

While the Save-A-Lot, where Jones shopped last week, is a boon for the area, it's not a full-service store. It helps provide some basic necessities at a good price. Jones, like many other residents, takes long bus rides to the Walmart Supercenter on Centre Pointe Drive near Tanger Outlets, to reach the nearest full-service grocery store.

Michelle Mapp, executive director of the Lowcountry Housing Trust, said her group, in partnership with other community organizations, recently landed a $500,000 federal grant to help address problems in North Charleston's 11 urban "food deserts," which are census tracts in which many low-income residents have limited access to a full-service grocery store.

Residents who live in areas that lack access to affordable, healthy food often have higher rates of high cholesterol, diabetes, heart disease and other health problems, she said.

Her group hasn't yet met to decide how specifically to best use the money. But it will consider some combination of three options: contributing something to the construction of a grocery store willing to open in Shipwatch Square; opening a food co-op, which would bring locally grown produce to the area; and launching a mobile food pantry to take food to the many residents who don't own cars.

The tri-county area has another four rural "food deserts," one in Dorchester County and three in Berkeley County. Mapp said her group is first focusing on the urban "food deserts." Then it will tackle problems in the rural areas, which likely will call for different solutions.

North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey said, "It's totally inappropriate that people at that end of the city don't have a place to shop." The southern part of the city has been without a grocery store since the Winn-Dixie at Shipwatch Square closed its doors in 2005.

The city is committed to offering incentives to a company willing to open a full-service grocery store in Shipwatch Square, Summey said. Those incentives could include the city contributing a portion of the construction, or other ways to make it easier for a company to get started in the area, Summey said.

The city began demolishing Shipwatch Square earlier this month as part of a plan to revitalize the center.

Two companies have expressed serious interest, he said. He's hopeful arrangements will fall into place within the next 18 months.

A Walgreens and an undisclosed bank already are in the works for the blighted southern end of the city. With a grocery store as the third new anchor, Summey said, other businesses likely would be attracted as well. And that would breath new life into the area.

Ethel Smalls, another Accabee resident who doesn't own a car, hopes the deal for a new grocery store falls into place soon. If she has to take to a cab to a grocery store, she has to cut some food from her list to pay for it. But she could walk to Shipwatch Square, "and that would be exercise, too."

The Rev. Bill Stanfield, chief executive officer of Metanoia, a faith-based community development corporation, said a lot of people who live in the southern end of the city end up buying things at convenience stores. "People are paying more for less healthy food," he said.

A 2010 survey of 14 area convenience stores by the Medical University of South Carolina College of Nursing backs that up. The survey found that all 14 stores combined had less than 50 feet of shelf space for fresh fruits and vegetables, but more than 2,000 feet of shelf space for soft drinks and alcohol.

Stanfield said his group holds an annual town hall meeting. For the past five years, the lack of an accessible, quality grocery store was the issue most important to residents.

And he thinks their voices have been heard about the need for such a store. "Everybody's committed, and it's going to happen sometime."

Reach Diane Knich at 937-5491.