The search for a solution to Grove food desert

When it comes time to shop for dinner in Grove, the pickings are slim.

A resident looking for something to prepare at home without traveling far is limited to a frozen pizza from a 7-Eleven convenience store or a meal assembled from offerings at the local Dollar General.

With one of the store’s yellow shopping carts leading the way, a shopper can pull chicken breasts and macaroni and cheese out of the freezer and then snag a couple cans of green beans off a nearby shelf to make dinner for a family easily enough. But fresh food is another matter.

Beyond several bananas sitting beside the 7-Eleven’s cash registers and a smattering of produce items, including several onions and avocados in a corner at Adela’s Deli Latin Store, there isn’t any produce on Grove store shelves that isn’t frozen or canned.

The United States Department of Agriculture considers Grove a food desert due to the lack of fresh and healthy foods generally found in large grocery stores, a type of business Grove lacks.

And as things stand now, there isn’t a specific plan to end the community’s food-desert status with the construction of a grocery store. While some county officials continue to explore how to attract a grocery store to the area, other officials and community members have ideas about a local solution to address the lack of fresh food.

An area of need

Grove residents find themselves in the unenviable position of lacking a local grocery store, even while the region continues to add to its list of stores.

There are close to 20 grocery stores operating or announced in Williamsburg, upper York and James City. A Publix is on the way for the Monticello Marketplace in James City, though an opening date hasn’t been set. This summer, Earth Fare, an organic grocer, is expected to open at the upcoming Midtown Row development in Williamsburg.

County staff and officials have been aware of Grove’s lack of a grocery store for years, but attracting a grocery store is difficult because there are a lot of boxes to check to make one happen, James City Economic Development Director Amy Jordan said.

While requirements vary by company, grocery stores have income, population or traffic count thresholds that have to be met, and Grove often struggles to meet those requirements, Jordan said.

"You have to look at a number of variables,” she said.

Stores such as Publix and Harris Teeter look to place their stores in areas with a median household income of about $50,000. Other grocery stores may look for a specific population count within several miles of the proposed store site, Jordan said.

In Grove, the median household income is $46,871, according to the county planning department. Grove’s population is 4,331 people, or 1,483 households. The county’s median household income is $80,226, according to 2016 census data.

And still other grocery stores, including discount grocers such as Aldi, want to open nearby an existing supermarket to fill a niche that store may be unable to fill.

Grove’s Dollar General, which opened in the last year, helped close the gap by providing some groceries. And local charity like Grove Christian Outreach Center also helps address need in the area, Jordan said.

For now, county staff is exploring what kind of parcels Grove has to offer for a grocery store. The area lacks undeveloped, large commercial parcels, which would be most appealing to a grocery store. A redeveloped parcel could be the way forward, Jordan said.

A public-private partnership along the lines of Billsburg Brewery, in which the county contributed money to help get the James City County Marina business off the ground, could potentially be in the cards as the county is interested in doing what it can to create an opening for a grocery store. Whether county support could take the form of monetary aid remains to be seen, Jordan said.

James City Supervisor John McGlennon said he’d be open to the idea of using county funds to help a grocery store get started. He stressed such an arrangement would require the store create a realistic business plan. McGlennon represents the Roberts District, which includes Grove.

But while the search for a suitable parcel, considered the first step in attracting a grocery store, is on, there isn’t an estimate on a time frame.

“We’re always looking for those opportunities,” Jordan said.

Though the area’s Dollar General has been a step forward, its been a years-long effort to bring a grocery store to the area. For now, Grove looks to its own local resources to try to narrow the gap for residents in need.

Closing the gap

Of Grove’s roughly 4,300 residents, about 900 of them, or about 21 percent of the population, live in poverty, according to the county planning department.

Just down the street from the Dollar General on Pocahontas Trail is Grove Christian Outreach Center, which operates a food pantry and distributions that keep many Grove residents supplied with food.

“We’re an oasis in the middle of the food desert,” Executive Director Pat McCormick said.

The center distributed more than 440,000 pounds of food in 2017. About 1,524 people received food through the center’s food distributions and pantry last year, said McCormick, who is also a Grove resident.

“It’s such a relief for them. They can plan certain meals for their families,” Food Ministry Coordinator Ruth Cunningham said.

The pantry receives food from the Virginia Peninsula Food Bank, local farmers, grocery stores, restaurants and Busch Gardens.

The center’s weekly food distribution events offer a variety of items, including fresh spinach, potatoes, oranges and bananas, among other produce as well as milk, bread, meats and snacks.

“The whole idea is to give enough food to offset the bottom line,” said Thomas McCormick, president of the center’s board of directors.

But while the center serves hundreds with hunger relief and other services, there’s still an unaddressed need. And a grocery store doesn’t seem a likely savior, Pat McCormick said.

“I don’t think one would come here,” she said, adding the population doesn’t appear to exist to support a grocery store.

There’s also the Grove Community Garden, which allows local families a more hands-on solution to incorporate fresh produce in their diets.

Though the garden is more a community-builder than food source, the garden’s 10 gardeners keep the food they grow and it provides a supplement of fresh produce for them, Garden Director Rob Till said.

“I’m here to help people and back people,” said Till, who added there’s space in the garden for more people to participate. It costs $10 a year to rent a plot.

The garden produces, among other things, asparagus, pumpkins, rosemary, kale, collards and squash. Till also oversees some garden space himself, and he distributes food grown there to people who ask for it. He estimated that about 200 people receive food from the garden in this way annually.

Local solutions

Both McCormick and Till agree the most likely solution to the area’s food problems may be greater community efforts.

A possible solution to Grove’s problems could be everyone growing some of their own food. The garden attempts to create a love and interest in gardening, Till said.

McCormick would like to see local faith groups, either together or individually, organize a transit system for Grove residents, either to take them to grocery stores at regular intervals with church vehicles or take them on trips to farmer’s markets.

The center would also like to lengthen its operating hours, but that would require additional volunteers, McCormick said.

The closest grocery store that the center’s clients would most likely shop at is the Food Lion at James-York Plaza, which is about 6 miles away from the center. Some clients lack their own transportation, which creates a challenge, McCormick said.

McGlennon echoed interest in a local solution, saying the area’s population poses a large hurdle to attracting a grocery store.

“The challenge is in the lack of a large enough population base,” he said.

He pointed to Jim’s Local Market, a now-closed grocer that was in Newport News. The store was hailed as a solution to the city’s food desert in the Southeast Community when it opened in spring 2016. However, the store shuttered in January after not being able to meet its sales targets.

“It was just not able to operate off that population base,” McGlennon said.

While the Dollar General is a valuable addition for the community as a convenient place to pick up some groceries, there’s still a need for fresh food access. Encouraging residents to start gardens, work already started by Till’s community garden project, may be a way to introduce more fresh produce into Grove residents’ diets, McGlennon said.

Another potential solution could be a pop-up market operated by an area grocery store on a weekly basis in Grove. Such a program, though not something being actively pursued, could expand a store’s market and address needs in Grove, McGlennon said.

Pop-up or mobile grocery stores have operated as distinct nonprofits or arms of food pantries in cities such as Chicago and Washington, D.C.

“We need to think outside the box,” McGlennon said.

For more information

Grove Christian Outreach Center: 757-887-1100.

Grove Community Garden: 757-332-3361.

Jacobs can be reached by phone at 757-298-6007.

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