Cornbread smeared with sweet orange marmalade and live music helped mark a celebration in East Durham last week as residents welcomed the first grocery store to open in the neighborhood in at least 50 years.
TROSA, the Durham-based nonprofit, opened the store on the corner of Angier Avenue and Driver Street. Two miles from the revitalized downtown center, the corner is in the middle of a struggling neighborhood where crime deters most commercial development.
"I don't have to tell you that this grocery store brings much needed services to the community," Durham Mayor Bill Bell told the crowd. "It brings a great deal of pride and spirit. The community is coming to life."
The store is part of a regional effort to provide low-income communities access to affordable, healthy food. In the 1940s and '50s, Andrews Market stood in the space adjacent to the new TROSA Grocery. Jimmy Andrews and his sister, Betsy Brogdon, stood reminiscing at the grand opening on the same corner where, as children, they passed out fliers for their father's grocery. The store was part of a vibrant community that was later left desolate and rife with crime.
"I'm so glad someone stepped forward and opened up something, trying to get the community back up again," says Andrews.
Many of the neighborhood's residents walk or rely on public transportation to get around. With the nearest chain grocery store almost two miles away, the most practical alternatives are nearby convenience stores, which offer little or no fresh food.
That communities like East Durham exist in what researchers have dubbed "food deserts" is nothing new. What is new is that researchers and policymakers are beginning to connect these food deserts with the pervasive problems of hunger and obesity that afflict the poor.
According to Wendy Nol, the store's project manager, almost 20,000 people in the neighborhood live at least one mile from a standard grocery store. For more than 40,000, that distance is two miles. Most residents walk to Los Primos, a Hispanic market on Alston Avenue, about a mile from TROSA Grocery.
"Our store will be a primary food source to the neighborhoods that can't easily get to markets," she says. "When you're walking a mile with bags of groceries, it's not convenient. Even on buses, with groceries, and especially for elderly people, it's difficult."
TROSA Grocery is as inviting as an old friend with a sunny disposition: a yellow sunrise logo and the slogan "Good Food, Close to Home" stamped on the glass doors. Two large, bright windows elicit compliments from customers impressed with the clean, newly renovated 2,000 square-foot store. A vibrant produce display, as charming as a roadside stand, includes a variety of local leafy greens, fresh vegetables and colorful fruit. Small sacks of dry beans and canned Gerber baby products line shelves. Cheddar blocks and juice boxes sit in refrigerated rows. A display of TROSA brand jams, honey and pickled products welcomes customers.
In keeping with the organization's primary mission of being a long-term, residential recovery program, the store does not sell alcohol. (TROSA stands for Triangle Residential Options for Substance Abusers.)
Joseph Bushfan owns the building that houses TROSA Grocery. It is adjacent to his Joe's Diner, where $5 buys a solid meal. Hailing from Roxbury, a notoriously rough neighborhood in Boston, Bushfan once owned a personal security business for affluent celebrities. His work led him to Durham, where he noticed the disconnect between East Durham's community and the neighboring revitalized areas. He learned even more from pushing a hot dog cart down the block, selling to residents as they dragged groceries home from Alston Avenue.
"As I used to sit out here, I'd see kids come by me with holes in their T-shirts, no sneakers," he says.
Bushfan intended to open a grocery alongside the restaurant in January. With the help of Durham businessman and former city councilman Dan Hill, he landed a Neighborhood Commercial Revitalization grant to renovate the building. The grant reimburses them 80 percent of their expenses, or up to $200,000. The new tenants have turned a gritty block into a district with promise. The city suggested TROSA run the grocery, its completion the final stage in securing the grant.
"We hope it will be the catalyst for people coming back to a business district that was abandoned 30 years ago," says Hill, a city councilman from 1999–2001.
He says that until recently the area was "the bull's eye for tough stuff going on," including gang activity. "We'll see a lot more people walking to the grocery store to get some exercise," Hill says. "As the community stabilizes and takes back the neighborhood, they will feel comfortable walking outside of their homes."
Everyone involved in the project would like to see expanded services at the grocery.
"Hopefully, over time we can have nutritionists there, but not imposing it on people," Hill says. "The fruits and vegetables [at the store] are fresh. The residents can't find it anywhere else near where they live."
Hill spoke at the grand opening, telling residents "it's your grocery store. This is a good place and an important place for you to support and enjoy." Later, at Joe's Diner, he said that because of this new revitalization, a lot of people are coming back to the area, helping it become a melting pot of people from all socioeconomic backgrounds. "There's a nice spirit here."
One of the challenges that food deserts pose is that policymakers don't know where they are. Statistics on state and regional levels rarely scratch the surface.
"There isn't a one-stop data source or agreement in what we are trying to look at in our state," says Diane Beth, a nutrition manager at the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services. "Are we determining lack of grocery stores, lack of corner stores, lack of high-quality produce? What kind of assessment should we be trying to do?"
Food insecurity, which the federal government defines as a lack of dependable access to adequate food, is more often sensed than defined. LaDonna Brown, a master's student at N.C. Central University, has set out to put a finer point on the problem. Earlier this month, she began working with Bountiful Backyards on a project to map local food deserts. The project, her thesis, kicked off with door-to-door surveys. Brown, along with professors from NCCU, SEEDS participants and workers from Public Allies, an Americorps program, polled residents who live in southeast Durham between Interstate 85 and N.C. 147.
"I'm taking into account what's offered around that area, if residents rely on public transportation," Brown says. "Where can they get healthy foods within walking distance, not just at convenience stores? Do they use fresh foods and vegetables to cook with, to eat, on a daily basis?"
When she began her survey, in the neighborhood surrounding SEEDS on Gilbert Street in southeast Durham, she discovered that many residents aren't aware of the garden down the road.
"It seems that people are wanting more urban agriculture and more fresh produce in closer proximity, but there's a disconnect from what's out there and what people know. If it's not a big name supermarket, then people don't really know about it," Brown says.
Jennifer Curtis, a project director at the Center for Environmental Farming Systems, led a recent study that resulted in a policy guide for improving North Carolina's food systems. It examined the relationships among food insecurity, agriculture, obesity rates and nutrition.
"The real story [regarding food access] is the local one, like TROSA Grocery opening," says Curtis. "This guide moves the issue forward from a statewide perspective and tries to make decision makers see the connection between local farmers and our working poor in North Carolina. Framing it and seeing it as a food system is relatively new, but it's bringing together new partnerships between the agriculture side and state policymakers."
North Carolina is one of the top 10 agricultural states. How can we be home to so many hungry people? Margaret Gifford, founder of Carrboro-based Farmer FoodShare, collects leftover food from farmers' markets and donates it to hunger relief groups and residencies. She says part of the problem is a lack of government leadership.
"At the grassroots level, we are innovating around food security," Gifford says. "My impression is that the policymakers are lagging behind the grassroots. They have not picked this issue up, and they need to pick it up ... We feed our troops overseas, we feed the world, we feed the nation, but we don't feed our own people. That's not OK."
North Carolina's food crisis statistics show inequality across the board. The state includes higher-than-average rates of both childhood obesity and malnourishment, but also tops the charts in both food production and food insecurity. The state also trails other states in matching federal funds for nutrition and physical education programs.
In January, N.C. legislation established a Sustainable Local Foods Advisory Council, which works through food issues via agricultural and community efforts. Local grassroots organizers are hopeful, pushing for state involvement in an upcoming review of the Federal Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act, a government effort that implements national food policy, like healthier food choices in schools.
Bountiful Backyards founder Keith Shalijan praised the TROSA Grocery as a good first step in eradicating local food deserts.
"Wendy [Nol] has been explicit about the fact that they are not trying to exclusively be the only grocery store," he says. "This is a great approach, and doubly great because there needs to be many more markets birthed in the Northeast Central Durham community. The efforts of Cornucopia and others throughout the Triangle's network of co-ops, partners and activists can be one spoke on a much larger wheel of meeting people where they're at."
Gifford says hunger is more pervasive than most people realize.
"The 2009 hunger study said that one in seven families experienced food insecurity at some point," she says. "That means that you and I have met somebody recently who has not exactly known how they are going to feed their family or themselves. That's very important to realize. Hunger is hidden."