Communities across the US are using federal stimulus money to bring grocery stores and healthy food to food deserts, as the pandemic and rising costs put nutrition further out of reach for many.
The regions using American Rescue Plan funds include Montana’s Fort Belknap Indian Reservation, a 1,000-sq-mile expanse shared by the Assiniboine and Gros Ventre tribes. Most of the reservation is considered a food desert by the US Department of Agriculture, meaning most residents have little access to healthy food.
An Indigenous-owned company on the reservation plans to renovate and expand the Little River Trading Post, formerly part of the Kwik Stop chain, in the town of Fort Belknap Agency.
The combination gas station and convenience store closed briefly after it was bought and then reopened in December selling apples, bananas, potatoes, onions and berries. “Our berries fly off the shelves,” said Eddie Moore, a business development officer who runs the store for the Island Mountain Development Group, which bought the business last year. It plans to use federal stimulus funds to expand its fresh produce offering this year.
At least five other communities have proposed using money from the American Rescue Plan – the $1.9tn package approved by Congress in 2021 to help the country recover from the pandemic’s effects – to open or revive grocery stores, according to the US Treasury Department. A slew of other areas are looking at ways the funds could ease food insecurity.
In Toledo, Ohio, local activists have urged the city to use $1m of the federal infrastructure funds to help attract a grocery store to a low-income neighborhood. Healthier food would help alleviate high obesity, cholesterol and blood pressure problems among Toledo’s Black population, said the Rev Donald Perryman, president of the Toledo advocacy group United Pastors for Social Empowerment.
“When you have been an oppressed resident of our country in some of these disadvantaged neighborhoods, you develop some habits related to survival,” he said. “Sometimes those habits become embedded.”
Black and Latinos are more likely to live in areas without grocery stores than white people, as are low-income people.
The grocery model is broken and the federal funding offers new ways to fix it, said Beverley Wheeler, director of DC Hunger Solutions, which runs nutrition programs in the nation’s capital.
“Our large grocery stores have a business model that’s built on education and income,” said Wheeler, who noted Washington DC plans to use American Rescue Plan funds to add smaller grocery stores to underserved neighborhoods this year. “They don’t build them in the neighborhoods where we need them.”
It can be hard for a grocery store to make a profit even in affluent communities, so getting companies to stick around low-income neighborhoods is a challenge, said Connie Max, executive vice-president for lending with the Local Initiatives Support Corp, a non-profit that helps fund community projects. More communities are asking for help attracting or retaining grocers, Max said, with local governments and community non-profits gathering funds rather than waiting for companies to open stores on their own.
“The margins are pretty thin on grocery stores,” she said. “Whenever we can, we try to help them to purchase the facility to really root them in the community.”
But giving residents access to healthy food may not be as simple as opening a new grocery store.
Toledo officials are trying to figure out what would help the most, especially in neighborhoods that have lost population. Less than half the population gets its groceries from grocery stores, said Sandy Spang, the city’s deputy economic development director, down from 90% in 1988. The city is surveying residents to see whether new grocery stores would be more useful than, say, food trucks or other prepared food options.
“I think we need to recognize the distribution of food is changing,” Spang said. “I don’t think we can look at the solutions of 40 years ago. If you’ve lost density in neighborhoods, you’re not necessarily going to have feasibility for traditional grocery stores.”
In Birmingham, Alabama, which is also researching ways to use ARP funds for healthier food options, the city paid to renovate an abandoned grocery store but realized it would need to divide the building in half to attract a new grocer because companies tend to prefer smaller stores.
Residents surrounded by convenience and dollar stores have sorely missed having access to fresh foods such as produce, baked goods and seafood, said Carol Clarke, the city councilor who represents the neighborhood. “It is most assuredly a food desert,” she said.
Other communities are also using ARP funds to ease food insecurity:
The Cherokee Nation hopes to open a grocery store in Marble City, Oklahoma. “It’s important to ensure our Cherokee communities inside the reservation have access to healthy foods, especially in our rural areas where there are limited resources including grocery stores,” said Chuck Hoskin Jr, Cherokee Nation principal chief.
Austin, Texas, where 12 of the city’s zip codes lack grocery stores, plans to open at least one pilot store in underserved eastern Austin.
Macon-Bibb county, Georgia, is spending $1m on a grocery store in a low-income neighborhood.
Memphis, Tennessee, and Washington DC, also plan to open ARP-funded stores, and Charleston, West Virginia, has proposed Miss Ruby’s Corner Market, which would take over the site of a former soda fountain near a senior housing complex where residents have trouble getting to grocery stores further away.
The non-profit store will carry local produce and offer nutrition education, said Spencer Moss, executive director of the West Virginia Food & Farm Coalition, which is helping to open the business.
“We don’t need to make a profit,” she said. “We just need to break even.”