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VOL. 125 | NO. 148 | Monday, August 2, 2010

In Search of an Oasis

Looking for relief among Memphis’ bleak food deserts

By Bill Dries

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Part of the path to inner-city recovery appears to run through a garden, or at least through the produce section of a supermarket. Nine farmers markets operate in various parts of Shelby County this summer, from Downtown to Collierville and places such as Germantown, Agricenter International and Cooper-Young in between.

The newest farmers market opened on a blazing hot July day on the parking lot of what was once a fish market at Mississippi Boulevard and South Parkway in South Memphis.

Establishing a farmers market was the first of several goals in the area from a coalition of groups. Not all of their efforts are food related, but some are. They especially hope to bring a supermarket to that part of South Memphis, which has been identified as a “food desert” – an area lacking in access to fresh food and produce.

On the first Thursday afternoon the farmers market was in business, the Rev. Kenneth Robinson bounded across South Parkway to pay a visit. The church he pastors, St. Andrew AME, is on the other side of South Parkway and has long been a force in the area.

Robinson, a former state health commissioner, serves as the county’s chief health officer. The Harvard medical school graduate is an internist and preventative medicine physician, and he also has a divinity degree from Vanderbilt University.

As he roamed the market’s stalls, he eagerly shook hands with the vendors, holding up potatoes and tomatoes and encouraging those walking by to come into the shade of the tents.

“It’s been the element of leadership and policymakers that understand that Memphis, like other large municipalities, really needs to do something by policy … to create access to food like this,” Robinson said.

More important than improving access to food is changing behavior. Charles Champion, an herbalist whose South Memphis drug store is a landmark, put it simply as he stood in the shade and awaited the ribbon cutting for the farmers market.

“Just go to a supermarket and go into the meat department and look on the floor where people have almost worn the floor apart,” he said. “Then you go over into the vegetable department and you don’t see anybody, especially in this neighborhood. Now, I’m not going to say that if you go into other communities in Memphis.”

Robinson has a hand in both approaches to the access problem.

“The business case is very different with a grocery chain,” he said. “The need is the same.”

Filling the need

The dearth of, and demand for, inner-city retail is a chord that planners and developers trying to buck decades of decisions to move away from the city have struck repeatedly in recent years.

Developers of the redevelopment attempts of the Mid-South Fairgrounds and the Poplar-Cleveland area both wanted a Target store. Their bids were each based on studies showing a pent-up demand for retail in the areas.

Attempt to Label Genetically Engineered Food Falls Short in Tennessee Legislature

A bill to require the labeling of genetically engineered supermarket food died in the Tennessee Legislature last session.
Joe Towns, the state representative from Memphis who introduced the bill, took specific aim at genetic engineering. But he said his legislation deals with a general problem in a city known as the barbecue capital of the world and whose culture is built, in part, on food.
“We have a real problem with eating the wrong stuff,” Towns said. “People in this community are dripping with fat. That’s pressure on your health care system. That’s pressure on the longevity of life. It’s just pressure on everything.”
Towns vows to be back with the proposal after the 2010 elections when a new legislative session begins.
“If it’s a hybrid and you don’t want to eat that, you should have a choice to not put that in your body,” he said.
The labeling requirement would have included dairy and meat products “derived from livestock that have been fed genetically engineered feed or food additives or ingredients or derived from livestock that have been treated with genetically engineered hormones or drugs.”
Towns attributes the bill’s defeat to the powerful farmers’ lobby in Nashville.
“Obviously their position is what is it going to do to their profit,” he said. “I don’t want to take away from the ability of a farmer or any other business person to make a living. … But I think we should be able to do it in the right way. It’s hard to change old habits.”
– Bill Dries

It was the same demand that propelled now abandoned plans to turn the south side of Overton Square into a supermarket, despite the presence of five other supermarkets within five miles of Cooper Street and Madison Avenue.

And proponents of a supermarket somewhere in South Memphis are playing the same tune with statistics that come to the same general conclusion as the Midtown case.

“There’s developed in economic development literature sort of a bias against urban inner-ring neighborhoods in terms of them being rich sites for retail activities,” said Dr. Ken Reardon, director of the University of Memphis graduate program in city and regional planning.

Reardon and the university are part of the South Memphis coalition. Reardon also is a big believer in the theories and work of Harvard Business School economist Michael Porter, who in a 1995 Harvard Business Review article wrote that efforts to revitalize inner cities with social programs alone had failed.

“A sustainable economic base can be created in the inner city, but only as it has been created elsewhere: through private, for-profit initiatives and investment based on economic self interest and genuine competitive advantage,” Porter wrote.

Two sites in South Memphis have been pushed as a possible oasis in the food desert.

Reardon and Robinson point to an old and now empty hardware store at South Parkway and Lauderdale Street as a likely site. Robinson said the location is “ideal.”

Reardon said the coalition is “in conversation with retailers and their consulting firms” about a medium-sized store. He mentioned the Aldi store chain by name. The Batavia, Ill.-based discount grocer has 10 stores in the Memphis area including Whitehaven, Raleigh and Hickory Hill.

Efforts to reach the chain’s Mount Juliet, Tenn., office, which handles real estate for Tennessee, were unsuccessful as of press time.

So far, none of the supermarket chains in the Memphis market have been willing to stand at a podium and commit without some careful thought and review of financial forecasts in the current recession.

But in May there was an effort that included some name dropping with little of the caution offered by Reardon.

In search of an anchor

Most Memphians would know the location of the Soulsville Town Centre if you said it is on McLemore Avenue across from the Stax Museum of American Soul Music. It is also next to what used to be the site of Jones Big Star, the last full-service supermarket in the neighborhood.

Featuring an oil painting of Rufus Jones Sr., the store was where some of the Stax stars worked day jobs before they became famous and where they shopped after they became celebrities.

Interim Shelby County Mayor Joe Ford pointed his administration toward the strip center, just a mile and a half from Lauderdale and South Parkway, earlier this year.

Just as Ford touted saving The Regional Medical Center at Memphis, he also talked in May of the imminent arrival of a name supermarket as the anchor tenant of the Towne Centre.

It was easier said than done because Soulsville still is in search of an anchor tenant, but the effort was instructive.

One of Ford’s numerous task forces since his tenure as interim mayor began late last year was one on empowering women in business.

At one of the task force’s meetings, Ford announced a partnership between county government and the National Urban Financial Institution, a nonprofit “micro lender,” to focus “direct efforts on creating equal distribution of healthy food sources to communities that have a historic lack of access,” Ford said.

Ford then dropped a big name in the local supermarket realm.

“We haven’t worked the particulars out with Schnucks, but we will,” he told reporters.

Developer Jeffrey Higgs was more tentative but excited about the possibility of a well-known chain coming to the area.

“We are continuing to look for a grocery store,” he said. “I’ve got the antenna out to just about everybody. This gets us a lot closer. It’s important to the vitality of the center and the sustainability of the center.”

Shaundra Glass of National Urban was ready to provide mentoring and counseling to small-business owners who would undertake the project as well as financial assurances to the supermarket chain. She wasn’t as specific as Ford, saying there were some “discussions” in May with Kroger and Walmart.

Since May, National Urban, which also works with the Tennessee Housing Development Agency (THDA), has moved on to other projects, but Higgs still wants a 27,000-square-foot grocery store to anchor the center.

“That is the one question I get from everybody in the neighborhood: ‘When is a grocery store coming?’” he said.

Three months later there is no answer to the question.

Model market

Like Reardon, Glass also sees economic potential in an area where incomes may not be as high as in other areas with lots of retail but which are denser in population.

Tennessee Agriculture Commissioner Ken Givens says farmers markets are where town meets country. The markets are also part of a state strategy to increase farm income and expand the agriculture sector in the state's economy. The state kicked in $100,000 for a new pavilion at the Memphis Farmers Market.  Photo: Bill Dries

“If you look at statistics, those (denser) areas spend more capital than any other area,” she said. “Why not put something in there that can benefit them? I think we’re on to something.”

Robinson agrees and downplays any competition between the two sites.

“I think we’re all barking up the same tree,” he said. “We will support whomever and whichever comes. And probably our community can support more. That’s what the initial analyses seem to prove.”

At least for now, the farmers markets will be the answer there and in other areas without a supermarket.

Some look to be on their way up or back but are not too distant kin to the crumbling old neighborhoods where corner grocery stores and peddlers once sold produce and fresh food instead of being exclusive providers of cigarettes, beer, chips, Slim Jims and air fresheners.

“The dawn of the automobile really was the death knell for the very small, microscale, neighborhood-oriented retail – the mom-and-pop store,” Reardon said. “In just a 20-year period, the entire structure of retail food services got turned around. Now it’s really large, mall-based, full-service mega stores.”

The nonprofit Memphis Farmers Market (MFM) began small in 2006 at the recently restored Central Station Downtown. The market now appears to do more business than the train station’s central occupant, the Memphis Area Transit Authority.

From mid-April to October, dozens of vendors line the pavilion designed for waiting passengers but seldom used for its original purpose.

Starting small in 2006, The Memphis Farmers Market has grown in the last four years. The market runs from April-October and is a growers market, meaning no resale is allowed.  Photo: Bill Dries

“This started as a small community focused group of people who felt there was a need in this Downtown urban environment to bring local produce, locally produced goods to the market,” said MFM board chairwoman Susan Kitsinger. “We don’t have a grocery store down here.”

Kitsinger commented after Tennessee Department of Agriculture Commissioner Ken Givens presented the MFM board with a $100,000 matching grant to expand the space with a second covered pavilion for the dozen or so vendors who can’t fit under the train station pavilion.

MFM must come up with the rest of the money for the $360,000 project from other sources and announced $2,000 toward the private part of the effort as Givens presented the ceremonial check. The expansion should be ready in April.

The state funding is designed to boost farm profits in Tennessee and boost agricultural development.

But Givens also is familiar with the concept of food deserts.

“I live in a food desert,” he said. “Fortunately, I live in two worlds. My real home is in northeast Tennessee. I live on a farm and I do some gardening in my backyard. But I also live in a food desert in Nashville right there along the Cumberland River.”

Givens described the farmers markets as “an example of where the city meets the country.”

Venue for farmers

The South Parkway and Mississippi Boulevard location for the South Memphis Farmers Market is temporary. The coalition hopes to move it to a nearby permanent site with a pavilion. It is open on Thursdays to give vendors from the other farmers markets another day to sell their wares.

Most of the other markets are open on Saturdays. The Agricenter Farmers Market, the oldest of the group and part of the larger mission of Agricenter International, is open six days a week.

Givens said a “growing number” of farmers in the state are doing more than harvesting crops and delivering raw goods to someone else for packaging or processing. Many are producing, packaging and delivering what comes from their farms directly to market.

“You can have a small garden or a small farm and grow a lot of produce,” he said, estimating an acre of “good” tomatoes might gross $25,000 or so. “We’ve got farmers that are diverting from tobacco production. Tobacco production in East Tennessee is not what it once was. They’re growing tomatoes up there.”

Not everything is pulled from the ground and put in a basket or bag.

Megan Bruch, a marketing specialist with the University of Tennessee Center for Profitable Agriculture in Spring Hill, Tenn., said farmers markets across the state are becoming important venues for farmers.

“Really, farmers markets now have a wide variety of products from meats and dairy products, including cheese or fresh milk and farm-fresh eggs and honeys and jams and jellies and fresh baked good,” she said.

There are state regulations for labeling, inspections of commercial kitchens or licensed domestic kitchens and the process used to package such products.

Becky Tatum and her husband, John, own Delta Grind, a Water Valley, Miss., company that has been coming to MFM about once a month for the last three years and makes the Memphis Botanic Garden’s market occasionally with grits, corn meal, polenta, masa flour, buckwheat flour and wheat germ.

“Every time I go it is always worth going, just as far as the money made and the people who come to see you,” Becky Tatum said. “You have anybody from the simple individual buying food for their household to the chefs that come down and scope out what’s new.”

Delta Grind’s main business is restaurant wholesale. The Tatums bought the company two years ago after L&M’s in Oxford, Miss., a restaurant where Becky Tatum worked, closed. The woman who owned Delta Grind mentioned that she was looking to sell.

“We’re food people,” Tatum said. “It’s a different kind of food business for us. But it’s not that hard. It’s kind of funny that not a lot of people do milling.”

Kitsinger has seen similar transformations among other vendors.

“We have a couple here who has walked away from teaching,” she said. “They now have a farm. I think it is important for us to recognize as a community that people do want a simpler way of life. They do want to go back to when things were sustainable and we were able to feed ourselves.”

MFM doesn’t rent a stall to just anyone with a load of produce. It is a “growers market.”

“We do require their letter from the (agricultural) extension service that they are certified growers,” Kitsinger said. “We also tour their farms as well as the production areas for some of our prepared foods as well as flower farms. We require that they be growers to sell here. We don’t allow resale.”

Delta Grind is checking out distributors.

”I’m kind of moving more toward having it available for everyone,” Tatum said. “My next steps are packaging and UPC codes just to get it kind of in more retail spots. I am in a few places, but it’s kind of like my homemade packaging. It looks homemade.”

Even without the slicker packaging, Tatum said her smaller operation has an advantage over much larger corporate operations making items like grits that have a longer shelf life and different processing.

“It comes out in the flavor of the food,” she said. “It tastes like nothing and it looks like nothing. When you have something that you know is fresh and that you know how it was prepared, it’s just going to come out in the flavor.”

The efforts to make the farmers markets stable institutions and return stores offering fresh produce to low-income neighborhoods are complex. They involve more than leaving such decisions to the fate of brutal economic conditions.

Robinson and Glass and others involved in different parts of the South Memphis effort stress that they are trying to make it easier for business owners to go where others have hesitated for decades.

That reassurance comes in the form of incentives and better financing terms that acknowledge the risk and that they believe will be met by a demand from consumers who either don’t buy their goods now or buy them someplace else less frequently.

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