Our downtown Chapel Hill food desert – Molly De Marco

Molly De Marco
Molly De Marco

A few months back, after it was revealed that Carolina Square would feature a Target, a Daily Tar Heel reporter asked whether I thought the addition of a Target could address the fact that downtown is considered a food desert.

It may surprise many to know that residents of our downtown are considered to be living in a food desert (the U.S. Department of Agriculture defines a food desert as a census tract where 33 percent or more of residents live at least one mile from a full service grocery store). It’s a commonly cited problem, however, that there are no grocery stores in downtown Chapel Hill. Previous grocery stores have pulled out and companies have not been willing to build new ones downtown. The distance to a grocery store is contributing to an increase in food insecurity among downtown residents - lower-income residents who live in Northside and Pine Knolls and the increasing percentage of UNC students from relatively lower-resource families.

In fact, within the last two years UNC students opened a food pantry, the Carolina Cupboard, because some of their own students are in need. The founder of the Carolina Cupboard told me of students who are living in the forest surrounding Jordan Lake and commuting here to attend classes. He told me of other students who scrimp on their meal plans so they can send money home to their families.

The Place at the Table: Community Foodways Walking Tour conducted by the UNC Weiss Urban Livability Fellows highlighted some of the food landscapes of our town including the tienda on Rosemary and the Inter-Faith Council’s Community Kitchen. On this tour, the students noted that where we used to have Fowler’s, the only places to buy groceries now are the tienda, drug stores, a convenience store, and the small grocery at Med Deli.

We have not come to this place, a downtown that is a food desert, by accident. One of the policies that contributed to this deficiency is zoning that has promoted sprawl, encouraging people to live outside of urban centers like our downtowns. As those with means move out, retail establishments like grocery stores followed them. Those without the means to move are left with communities that no longer have full service grocery stores.

Increasing gentrification in Northside and Pine Knolls raised property values and in turn property taxes on long-time residents. Higher property taxes cause residents, especially those on fixed incomes, to struggle to pay bills and buy healthy food. Despite an emphasis by some in the community on the property tax rate, it was the increase in tax value that caused this issue for many residents on fixed incomes.

Further, past policies that downzoned areas of our community to be less dense means that we have not had the population density to support a grocery store in downtown. Despite the fact that there are full-service grocery stores in Carrboro, students and people who live in our downtown without cars often struggle to get to those grocery stores, considered to be within walking distance or accessible by public transportation. Students often do not know where there are grocery stores or how to get there without a car. Many have not ventured off campus. Within our permanent community, we have elders and other persons with disabilities who are unable to drive, walk or take public transportation to access grocery stores.

Encouraging denser development with the greater number of people it will bring to downtown can encourage location of a grocery store, which could ameliorate the food desert issue. Denser development can also provide support for an increase in the frequency and duration of bus service connecting our downtown neighborhoods to supermarkets. We can also look to more urban areas for models of grocery stores that can be supported in our downtown – those that have a smaller footprint and that require less capital to obtain a lease. This may be one way to bring back greater grocery store choice. Chapel Hill has a populous but not particularly large downtown, which could support a smaller grocery model, but may not attract the large grocery stores we are used to here.

Could the Carolina Square Target be that model for a smaller grocery? Could it help eliminate the food desert designation in our downtown? It may if the prices are affordable and the Target chooses to offer healthy food items that people want to buy. We’ll find out when it opens in mid-July.

Molly De Marco lives in Chapel Hill and is an editor of the OrangePolitics blog.