Hidden in plain sight: Asheville’s food deserts

MOVABLE FEAST: Olufemi Lewis helped create the Ujamma Freedom Market as a way to bring nutritious edibles to Asheville's food deserts. Photo by Cindy Kunst

“Foodtopia,” a term recently trademarked by the Asheville Convention and Visitors Bureau, evokes visions of a happy place, where the produce practically falls from the vine right into the frying pan. There’s no denying the abundance of fresh, farm-to-table food here — indeed, it would be hard to find another Eastern city with more serious chefs per capita. Yet according to multiple studies, for more than 20 percent of the population in the greater Asheville area, getting food is more a struggle than a celebration.

“We can’t really call it Foodtopia when one out of five people can’t get enough to eat,” Susan Garrett of the Asheville-Buncombe Food Policy Council told the city’s Housing and Community Development Committee (which includes City Council members Gordon Smith, Cecil Bothwell and Chris Pelly) on Oct. 21. North Carolina, she said, was listed as the 10th-hungriest state in the nation in a 2012 report from the Food Research and Action Center, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit group working to end hunger in America. The same report listed the Asheville metropolitan statistical area (which includes Buncombe, Haywood, Henderson and Madison counties) as the ninth-hungriest in the country. Established in 2011, the all-volunteer Food Policy Council focuses on local access and sustainability issues within Buncombe County.

So how does one of the busiest tourist hubs in the state — a place where you can’t throw a rock without hitting a chef or a farmer — have so many people lacking access to good food or outright going to bed hungry? According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Web page, “food deserts” are “urban neighborhoods and rural towns without ready access to fresh, healthy and affordable food. Instead of supermarkets and grocery stores, these communities may have no food access or are served only by fast-food restaurants and convenience stores that offer few healthy, affordable food options. The lack of access contributes to a poor diet and can lead to higher levels of obesity and other diet-related diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease.”

Even within the Asheville city limits there are food deserts, and they often align with the city’s public housing developments. According to the Asheville Housing Authority, 57 percent of the city’s public housing is located in census tract 9 (south central Asheville), one of the most food-insecure parts of town. From the Hillcrest Apartments, for example, it’s more than a 1.5-mile walk to Earth Fare, the nearest grocery store — not a viable option for residents with limited incomes, no car and no money for gas or a taxi.

To the south, there’s Pisgah View Apartments, perched above Amboy Road River Park. It’s a grueling, 30-minute hike straight uphill to the nearest grocery store — not an easy trek for a single parent to make with kids in tow, let alone for some older folks or anyone in ill health.

And then there’s Lee Walker Heights, the city’s oldest federal housing project, tucked away just south of McCormick Field. Residents there have two options: a 2-mile walk up South Charlotte Street and through the tunnel to get to Ingles, or a 1 1/2-mile walk south to Katuah Market (like Earth Fare, a fairly upscale grocery store) and another brutal uphill hike home.

So why not take the bus? Limited schedules make that option time-consuming. Plus, how much food can an elderly man or woman, or someone with small children, carry from the store to the bus and then home from the bus stop?

Outside the city limits, things get even worse. Some poor neighborhoods can be as much as 5 miles from any place selling anything other than prepackaged food.

Part of the problem is that many business owners see little promise in opening a grocery store in an area where a lot of the customers will be paying with electronic benefit transfer cards (food stamps). And because public housing residents often don’t have a car, even relatively short distances can pose a considerable challenge.

Economics aside, though, an unfortunate conjunction of racism, failed federal programs and shifting political winds has also had a lot to do with putting many of Asheville’s poorest residents in this predicament.

Urban renewal’s bitter legacy

In 1949, President Harry S. Truman signed the American Housing Act, which began construction of public housing for poverty-stricken Americans. “The initial idea was to provide housing for poor people who had migrated to the city from the South and the countryside looking for jobs,” says professor Dwight Mullen, a political scientist at UNC Asheville who teaches a research course titled “State of Black Asheville.”

But the Korean War put the housing initiative on hold, and locally, it didn’t really kick in until President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty and the Model Cities programs picked up steam. “It was set up to ‘remove urban blight’ and then replace it with planned communities that were accessible to all incomes, but that’s where it all fell apart,” Mullen explains.

Back then, what’s now known as South Slope was a vibrant African-American neighborhood stretching from Martin Luther King Jr. Drive all the way to Depot Street and on up to Hill Street. Segregation was still very much the rule, and by the 1950s, these neighborhoods were home to hundreds of black-owned businesses, including restaruants, hotels, hair salons, funeral homes and grocery stores. But the infrastructure was crumbling, and the city hadn’t been doing much about it.

“The late Walter Boland, who was on City Council at the time, was looking at this area and saying, ‘How can we have homes with no indoor plumbing?” says Mullen. “‘How can we have open sewers running through the middle of the city this close to downtown? How do we have services available to all parts of town except this one?’ Their whole intent was to develop a modern infrastructure in an area that dates back to the 1830s.” So the city began a drastic overhaul using federal urban renewal funds, believing that investing in these areas would boost the overall economy.

“They told these folks, ‘Go stay over here for a while, and once we finish upgrading the sewers and power where your businesses and homes are, you can come back, renew your mortgages at lower rates.’” says Mullen. “But that never happened.

“It was all done with really good intent: There were jobs programs, Head Start, child care; the churches were involved. But when you look at the records, halfway through the program, the funds were just diverted to something else, and promises that were made to individuals were just not kept.”

During the urban renewal component, notes Mullen, “Johnson was president, but Nixon was elected during the part of that legislation where the grants were supposed to actually be issued, and they never were. Nixon’s compromise [with a Democratic House and Senate] became that he could end the city’s programs if they were transformed into grants and aid for infrastructure.” That money, however, went to the state, not the specific projects for which it was originally awarded. “Those funds,” continues Mullen, “went from the development of communities to things like urban trails, horse trails, I-240 and other infrastructure projects — relocating families because their neighborhoods had been demolished.”

Meanwhile, he explains, public housing “was never seen as being permanent: It was supposed to be transitional … but the transition never had a chance to occur, because financial institutions weren’t given federally guaranteed loans or supports to give former residents rehab or mortgage money to buy their homes back. So the private money designed for public housing and subsidized loans never actually materialized.”

In the end, prominent black business owners were left with nothing: a highway where their homes used to be and a hospital where their businesses once sat. Families who’d just begun to claw their way out of poverty were thrust back into the thick of it. Most of them were moved to public housing — all of it, even then, in what we now call food deserts.

“Here we are, 50 or 60 years later,” notes Mullen, “and we’re running up on the life expectancy of this public housing, because it wasn’t expected to be here that long. So now we either deal with it and continue public housing as it is, or tear it down, relocate, or whatever it is. But this can’t continue.”

Pictured from left inside the Ujamaa Freedom Market Bus are Olufemi Lewis, Calvin Allen and Stephanie Freeman. Photo by Cindy Kunst
FOOD MOVERS: Pictured, from left, inside the Ujamaa Freedom Market Bus are Olufemi Lewis, Calvin Allen and Stephanie Freeman. Photo by Cindy Kunst

Oasis on wheels

Meanwhile, some public housing residents aren’t content to just sit back and wait for the Housing Authority, the city or some other level of government to step up.

“I’ve always wanted to be in the medical health institution, and I am by selling real food,” says community organizer Olufemi Lewis, who lives in Hillcrest with her daughter, Serenity. Lewis, a co-founder of the Food Policy Council, a graduate of Just Economic’s Voices program for community organizing and a former public relations coordinator for Blue Ridge Biofuels, is also the founder of Ujamaa Freedom Market, a farm-to-fender mobile produce market that specifically sells to public housing residents throughout the city.

It started in 2011, she recalls, when a group of local women were gathered in the office of Nicole Hinebaugh, program director for the Women’s Wellbeing and Development Foundation in Asheville, talking about a local mobile convenience store called Da Candy Bus. The owner had been incarcerated multiple times on drug charges. “We were talking about the type of products that he had on his bus, and we were just talking about how it was affecting the overall health of our community. There was no nutrition in the food whatsoever.” It was chips, candy and assorted sugary, fatty, diabetes-inducing processed foods, Lewis recalls.

“We thought, ‘Why don’t we do a bus with healthy food instead?’ We got online and we Googled mobile markets and saw Fresh Moves out of Chicago,” a project of the nonprofit Food Desert Action that used converted city buses to provide fresh produce to underserved areas.

And then, one day, Lewis went to Da Candy Bus in search of some Lemonheads, which she calls her guilty pleasure, but what she discovered there was not so sweet: Displayed next to the snack foods was a Brillo pad in a bag with a crack pipe. Lewis says she addressed the truck’s proprietor: “I said, ‘What is that? Why you got that hanging up there?’ And he said, ‘Oh baby, you know, you got to serve everybody.’ And I said, ‘There’s children that come up on this bus!’ I looked at him and I said: ‘So you’re cool with perpetuating what has destroyed black America? You’re cool with that?” After that experience, Lewis had a mission.

In 2011, with the guidance and help of the WWDF, the five women applied for a grant to provide startup money, but by the time the funds were awarded, the group had splintered. So they assembled a new team, including current Ujamaa partner Calvin Allen.

“We had originally intended for it to be run by just four people, but when we got going, we got so inspired that we got more than that involved,” says Lewis. That, however, meant that each person took home a meager $125 per month. And when the money ran out, many of those involved had to pursue work elsewhere, leaving it up to Lewis and Allen.

But getting a new business going typically takes time, and Ujamaa is still in its early stages. Community members are only now getting used to the schedule, she says, and the staff have had to negotiate a steep learning curve.

“The development of Ujamaa Freedom Market has been a long and exciting process,” says Hinebaugh, who, along with the WWDF, was and continues to be instrumental in making Ujamaa possible, “and ultimately one that can serve as a learning experience not only for this organization and the worker-owners, but also for other cooperative developers, future worker-owners and even funders interested in supporting this type of work. … [The worker-owners] still have a road in front of them of learning and development, but gradually the external support required to claim full responsibility for this business is diminishing.”

Meanwhile, personal problems have made a hard job even harder for Lewis. When she was 20, she was charged with two counts of felony assault and lost custody of her first child. Although she later obtained her CNA certification and those charges and her conviction were later reduced to misdemeanors, she says no one will hire her. And since Ujamaa wasn’t profitable, Lewis was also driving a taxi after wrapping up her day’s work there. Recently, however, she reports, there was “a warrant issued for my arrest for nonpayment of child support for my 13-year-old son,” forcing her to step back from the business in order to seek more lucrative work.

“It’s hitting me hard,” she says. “I can’t do the one thing I want to do: I can’t take care of my community, because it ain’t making money yet.”

Who’s in charge?

In January 2013, City Council unanimously approved a Food Action Plan drawn from a countywide master plan developed by the Food Policy Council, laying the groundwork for a push to tackle the area’s severe hunger issues. In approving the Asheville plan, City Council had “the full intention of building more policy on this subject, and that has not yet happened,” says Councilman Smith, who’s also a member of the grassroots group. “The Food Policy Council has not had the legs one might have hoped.”

To date, the group, which has mobilized hundreds of volunteers from the community, has made inroads into the issue of food security through achievements including changes to operating rules for farmers markets and the legalization of urban farming. However, it has been more focused on organizational considerations and on forging partnerships with local government and other groups working on food and sustainability issues. Thus, no new policy proposals or additions to the action plan have emerged so far.

A large portion of the total government funding aimed at addressing poverty issues in the Asheville area is directed at public housing. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Residential Assistance Demonstration, for example, aims to revamp existing public housing units and build new ones nationwide, including a number of Asheville projects (see sidebar, “What is RAD?”). Another ambitious proposal, still in the very early planning stage, calls for demolishing and redeveloping Lee Walker Heights as an integrated, mixed-income community at the edge of the blossoming South Slope neighborhood.

So far, however, neither of these plans explicitly addresses the issue of food accessibility.

And when asked if the Housing Authority is making any effort on its own to assess food access in its facilities, Chief Operating Officer David Nash says, “Well, kind of.” But what about the RAD program? Does it include any provisions designed to ensure food security?

“They do have some requirements if you are replacing units in a new location, but they recognize that they are dealing with a lot of places where units are going to be replaced where they sit,” Nash explains. And since many of those units are currently food deserts, essentially, the answer is no.

As for the proposed Lee Walker Heights project, he says, “It would be nice to get some kind of grocery store into that development, if there is a way to do it.”

Meanwhile, food access remains a serious problem in Asheville and environs, and the connections with public housing seem clear. At this writing, however, what’s less evident is who’s in charge of taking tangible steps to address this tangled web of overlapping issues.

And when Garrett (who works as a life coach at Asheville Buncombe Community Christian Ministry) recently addressed the Housing and Community Development Committee, she put it this way: “We’re looking for the city to be more of a driver of these goals. Housing isn’t actually affordable if you cannot get access to healthy food.”



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About Jonathan Ammons
Native Asheville writer, eater, drinker, bartender and musician. Proprietor of www.dirty-spoon.com Follow me @jonathanammons

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5 thoughts on “Hidden in plain sight: Asheville’s food deserts

  1. jmart

    The Socio-economic income gap disparity here in the SOUTH is embarrassing; Yet they keep voting Republican; Serves them right!

    • Jim

      LOL. You can’t correlate that housing developments and food deserts are the norm not because some democrat tool piece of crap is lacking. It’s because no one in their right mind is going to open up shop near these places. I tell you what, by all means lead the way and open up a shop near one of these areas and lets see what happens.

      BTW, you should be a proud democrat. Your efforts are the prime reason and cause of the poverty, crime, single mothers, and every other revolving door problem that will never be solved on PURPOSE. Simply because if they were cured, democrats would become OBSOLETE.

  2. Marla Drucker

    What mean comments! Here we have a rather ideal combination of self-help and concern for healthy nutrition, and it all gets derailed because of child support? Shame on the judge who issued the order for the founder’s arrest!

  3. There are several reasons that grocery stores built to serve public housing areas fail. The first one is safety – these areas are drug and crime ridden. Who wants to work or shop in a place where your car will be vandalized, your purse will be stolen, and your head will likely be blown off in a drive-by? So staffing is a big issue. Then there is theft – stores in public housing areas are generally stolen blind. They cannot make enough to cover their losses. The store basically has to be an armed camp, and any illusion of safety vanishes the second you walk out of the door,

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