The end of a nine-year-long dry spell is in sight for a food desert

By Shiloah Coley

The sound of busy traffic can be heard from the West Beltline Highway as passengers in cars continue on their journeys. Some cars exit to go to the McDonald’s, a quick pit stop on the way to their destination. Then, they turn around to get right back on the highway.

But right across the street from the McDonald’s, there’s something that catches the eye, a bright orange building with lime green stripes running down the sides. It’s a grocery store that will bring an end to a food desert. It’s the first grocery store the Allied Dunn’s Marsh community has had in nine years.

A food desert is defined as an area with limited access to affordable and nutritious food, particularly an area composed of predominantly lower income neighborhoods and communities, according to the 2008 Farm Bill. In urban areas, it’s often measured by how many residents in a community live more than one mile away from a grocery store.

In most areas, the higher the percentage of minority populations, the more likely the area is to be a food desert.

In the United States, 23.5 million people live in low-income areas that are further than one mile from a large grocery store or supermarket, according to the United States Department of Agriculture.

The Allied Dunn’s Marsh neighborhood is more diverse (61 percent non-white), has a lower average house value and a higher percentage of assisted housing units than the rest of Madison overall, according to a 2017 University of Wisconsin-Madison study. The population is also young and more likely to rent when compared to the rest of Madison.

The neighborhood falls under the Marlborough Planning District where 50 percent of families are in poverty of all the households.

The neighborhood couldn’t sustain a large grocery store. The Cub Foods closed in 2009.

“The reason why it failed in the past is because grocery stores operate on very slim economic margins. So they have to have a lot of product moving through their store. They gotta have a lot of shoppers moving a lot of product,” said Alfonso Morales, associate professor of urban and regional planning. “The population density around there is not very high and economically a lot of folks there are of limited means and many are in poverty and others are just working class, middle-class folk.”

Then, the Walgreens closed in 2014, leaving residents without a de-facto grocery store.

In a low-income neighborhood, the absence of a local grocery store forces people to travel outside of the neighborhood, which may be costly for some low-income residents.

“Since low-income people tend to have less access to cars, it just means another cost in terms of money and time getting to a grocery store and making healthy food more expensive for them,” said Lydia Zepeda, a retired professor of consumer science.

People living in neighborhoods with the lowest food availability of healthy food are 55 percent less likely to have a good quality diet than those with greater availability, according to a study by Tulane University.

After the Cub Foods closed, residents found alternative grocery stores outside of their neighborhood. Allied Dunn’s Marsh resident, Ricardo Alatorre, watched some stores and restaurants come and go since he moved to the neighborhood four years ago.

“The community here is mainly Spanish so you hear Spanish stores and the restaurants close too. But the most I go to buy is usually Woodman’s or Pick ‘n Save. I find different things at good prices,” Alatorre said.

It takes about nine minutes to get from the Allied Dunn’s Marsh neighborhood to the Pick ‘n Save he goes to by car. However, if someone doesn’t have a car, then it takes about 20 to 30 minutes to get there by bus. It takes over an hour to walk to the grocery store.

The travel time both to and from the grocery store for someone without a car is 40 to 120 minutes of public transportation or walking.

It only takes about 7 minutes to walk from Alatorre’s home to the new grocery store opening in the neighborhood, Luna’s Groceries.

Luna’s Groceries is a grassroots effort from Mariam Maldonado, a resident of the neighborhood for six years and descendant of a family of grocers.

She decided to open a grocery store back in April of this year but came across a long list lot of obstacles. First, someone broke into the windows. Then, the building and storage area flooded. Then, they found asbestos in the floor, which cost her $20,000 dollars.

But Mariam Maldonado is no stranger to adversity.

Although the financial costs were steep, she applied for a grant from the city of Madison.

In March of this year, Maldonado received the grant of over $157,000 dollars from the city’s Healthy Retail Access Program, the largest grant they’ve ever awarded.

She started a GoFundMe page, Friends of Luna, and raised over $30,000 dollars in the month of November, with donations from 381 people.

“That’s how my life has been, that I have the challenge to get what I want, but when I get what I want it’s really good,” said Maldonado.

Despite all the challenges she faced, she said there’s been an enthusiastic response from the community.

Alderman Maurice Cheeks of District 10, which includes the Allied Dunn’s Marsh neighborhood, supports Maldonado’s efforts.

“It’s going to drastically increase access to food in the immediate neighborhood. There’re hundreds of families and kids in that neighborhood that are without ready access to food. Families had to take the bus across town just to get groceries or needing to buy milk from a nearby gas station and that just shouldn’t be,” Alder Cheeks said.

However, some residents have concerns.

Alatorre watched the community improve over the past four years and is concerned the close proximity of a grocery store that sells alcohol could negatively impact the area.

“It’s good that the grocery will be more close to here for walking and finding things. But I’m worried about this grocery. The reason is I don’t know, I’m not sure but I hear that this grocery will sell wines, liquor and alcohol. In my personal opinion, if that’s true I hope it won’t make problems because we prefer the neighborhood have more civility. The question is you know the alcohol can make many problems,” Alatorre said.

Apart from concerns in the community, the potential success of the store is still a gamble, like any business.

Zepeda said, “It’ll be very helpful to the community if they shop there. So that’s gonna be the big thing, will they be able to make a financial go of it? Are people in the neighborhood really going to shop there? And part of that is gonna be are their prices gonna be such that it attracts people? Is it gonna be food that people want? So that’s gonna be really important to the success of whether that grocery store stays there or not.”

Only 50 percent of small businesses with employees survive at least five years, according to the Small Business Association.

But Maldonado has done the research on what type of grocery store can succeed in the community.

She said the research showed the grocery store must be smaller and an ethnic grocery store to attract customers to travel from outside of the neighborhood to get groceries from her as well.

“We did research on that so it’s not just a dream, we have backup data so that our dream will work,” Maldonado said.

If the grocery store opens, it will put an end to the food desert in the Allied Dunn’s Marsh neighborhood and will make fresh food more accessible to the surrounding communities. Many of the communities around the Allied Dunn’s Marsh neighborhood, south of the West Beltline Highway, are food deserts as well according to the USDA.

While the economic status and population density of the area could not sustain a large grocery store in the past, there might be a brighter future for a smaller one.

“This small grocery could make it. It’s gonna have limited hours so that’s gonna be a challenge for some people, but it’s a grassroots effort and sometimes grassroots efforts are better, have better chances than things that come from chain stores not by the community,” Morales said.  

Alder Maurice Cheeks hopes that the success of Luna’s Groceries will give neighbors the dignity they deserve in having access to food.

Maldonado aims to have the grocery store open by Christmas Eve, a present to the community.

Distinguishing food insecurity from food deserts 

In Wisconsin, marginalized groups experience higher levels of food insecurity, and many food deserts around the urban areas of Wisconsin have higher populations of people of color. 

However, living in a food desert is not synonymous to being food insecure.

A food desert is defined as an area with limited access to affordable and nutritious food, particularly an area composed of predominantly lower income neighborhoods and communities, according to the 2008 Farm Bill.

Food insecurity is defined as when people have reduced quality, variety and desirability of diet. Disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake is also a product of food insecurity, according to the United States Department of Agriculture.

While living in a food desert does not mean one is food insecure, living close to a supermarket or grocery store reduces the risk of food insecurity, according to Public Health Madison and Dane County. 

Income level, access to transportation, and the quality of food available in local stores all impact one’s food security. 

“When you go into low-income grocery stores of predominantly neighborhoods of color it can have fewer options, a lot of convenience stores, and few full-service grocery stores,” said Lydia Zepeda, retired consumer science professor. “I’ve seen it with my own eyes, you go into a grocery store that’s in a low-income neighborhood and it just doesn’t have the quality and the variety of food often times.”

Marginalized groups experience significantly higher levels of food insecurity in Wisconsin in comparison to their white counterparts and the national average. 

The Wisconsin food insecurity rates exceed 33 percent for some of the most vulnerable groups; disabled people (37 percent), Hispanic households (35 percent), black households (35 percent) and single mothers (35 percent), according to a 2016 study by Public Health Madison and Dane County. 

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