As grocers build in suburbs, food deserts grow in Dayton

For 20 years, ALDI in the Westown Shopping Center stood as one of the only grocery options for low-income families in West Dayton — one of the areas in Dayton widely known as a food desert.

Since ALDI closed its doors earlier this month, community activists and residents have been scrambling to work with other local grocers and city officials to fill a gap in food availability. Grocers across the country are pulling out of some urban areas, widening the gap of access to healthy foods for low-income residents.

PHOTOS: Closed grocers left food desert in west Dayton

“I think it’s tricky as there’s not one solution,” said Etana Jacobi, manager of the Dayton-based Hall Hunger Initiative. “What does a comprehensive food system look like in Dayton?”

ALDI’s decision to close its store drew harsh criticism from some community members who contend the decision will exacerbate food deserts in Dayton.

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Dayton ranked as one of the worst metropolitan areas in the U.S. for food hardship in 2014-2015, according to the Food Research & Action Center. The city ranked second out of the 25 highest metropolitan statistical areas rated on food hardship for households with children, according to the center’s report.

Of all U.S. households, 2.3 million — or about 2.2 percent — live more than a mile from a supermarket and do not have access to a vehicle. An additional 3.2 percent live between a half-mile to a mile from a supermarket with no vehicle access, according to the U.S. Department to Agriculture.

Food deserts are areas that lack access to affordable fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat milk, and other foods that make up the full range of a healthy diet, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Limited access to affordable, healthier foods is one factor that may make it harder for some Americans to eat a healthy diet and could negatively affect their health.

ALDI causes more concern over food scarcity

In West Dayton, the ALDI has shut its doors while the Food For Less grocery store to the east burned down this winter. Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley said she was very disappointed that officials with the supermarket chain did not reach out to the city before deciding not to renew the lease.

“We take the closing of the West Dayton ALDI store very seriously, and the decision to close on April 15 was based on many metrics we use to evaluate our stores. We have been proud to serve residents near our West Dayton store over the last 20 years,” ALDI officials said in a statement where it encouraged shoppers to visit its stores in West Carrollton, Englewood and Kettering.

ALDI representatives have indicated to the city that foot traffic was down, Whaley said, but the shopping center is 100 percent occupied and its owners say its customer base has been steady. “To make the decision and just close with no communication to the community doesn’t show that they are good community partners,” Whaley said.

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Residents who have vehicles will be able to drive to Kroger on West Siebenthaler Avenue, about 4 miles north of the shopping center, or other stores in the Dayton area, said Jamica Garrison, co-founder and board member of the community group Neighborhoods Over Politics.

For residents without cars, it makes it that much harder to find access to a convenient grocery store, she said. Initially, ALDI told community members that they would work with RTA to shuttle residents to one of their others locations but nothing has come to fruition, Garrison said.

Garrison said food scarcity is one of those urgent issues she wishes city officials and partners would’ve thought about before ALDI’s departure. She hopes community leaders will try to fill the vacant space with another grocer.

“There’s an unfortunate gap with the community leadership,” she said. “It’s a little embarrassing and disheartening. The care is not there. Are you really for us?”

ALDI’s departure is part of a trend of grocery stores investing in highly populated suburban neighborhoods. On Monday, ALDI submitted plans to build a new location in Fairfield.

ALDI previously announced plans to invest $3 billion for the addition of 650 new ALDI locations in the United States during the next five years, bringing its total number of stores to 2,000 by the end of 2019. Dorothy Lane Market stores are all located in Oakwood, Springboro and Washington Square, while Kroger has opened and renovated stores in Centerville and Fairborn last year.

Kroger faces backlash

The Rev. Jesse Jackson organized protests against Cincinnati-based Kroger earlier this month. Jackson launched a protest against Kroger after they announced the closures of two stores in predominantly black neighborhoods. The grocery chain is closing another store not far away in Mississippi. Jackson said food deserts are a serious issue in black communities. Memphis community leaders went to Kroger's headquarters in Cincinnati this month to express concerns over the plans.

"If Kroger gonna leave us, we're gonna leave Kroger. It's boycott time," Jackson told WREG-TV (Channel 3) in Memphis.

Kroger met with Jackson and other community activists. Kroger officials said over the last 12 to 18 months, the chain closed about 50 under-performing locations and among all of those locations, about 10 percent served what some might call under-served communities.

“We understand it has an impact on the communities we serve. That’s why like here in Walnut Hills when we closed the store a year ago we worked really closely with the community, we waited until we opened the nearby Corryville store about a mile away to insure that we could continue to serve customers in the Walnut Hills community at another location.” said Keith Dailey, senior director of corporate affairs.

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Kroger strives to operate responsibly and in all the communities in which we live and serve, hope to end food insecurity by 2025 through our Zero Hunger Zero Waste program, Tim Brown, president of Kroger's Cincinnati/Dayton division, told this news organization earlier this year.

“We do not currently have a store project in downtown Dayton but are continuously evaluating our markets to look for new opportunities,” he said. “We will continue to invest in Dayton which is an important component of our division.”

Etana Jacobi, manager of the Dayton-based Hall Hunger Initiative, said the lack of investment — and intentional disinvestment — in low-income communities is only furthering the food insecurity issues facing the Dayton community. The Hall Hunger Initiative was formed in 2015 as a partnership with the United Way of the Greater Dayton Area and the Eichelberger Foundation. The goal is to address the issue of hunger by collaborating with community stakeholders to reduce food insecurity and increase food access.

“This is a crisis,” she said. “We’re experiencing a food crisis, and we need to talk about it more.”

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Along with smaller programs like the Public Health — Dayton & Montgomery County’s“Good Food Here — Healthy Corner Store” initiative and the Dayton Foodbank’s Mobile Market, activists and community partners think the Gem City Market could address the needs of residents living in food desert areas.

“The Market will be a vital community asset that provides much-needed access healthy and fresh food. It will also include on-site health and nutrition classes and programming to encourage healthy choices and teach cooking techniques,” Lela Klein,executive director of Greater Dayton Union Co-op Initiative, told this news organization in an interview last year.


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