OPINION: One grocery store closes and a food desert reopens

Workers put up fences around the parking deck that collapsed at the Summerhill Publix on Saturday, Sep. 2, 2023,  (Steve Schaefer/steve.schaefer@ajc.com)

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Workers put up fences around the parking deck that collapsed at the Summerhill Publix on Saturday, Sep. 2, 2023, (Steve Schaefer/steve.schaefer@ajc.com)

In June, when the new Publix on Hank Aaron Drive opened after two years under development, it offered residents of Summerhill and surrounding communities long-awaited, convenient access to fresh, healthy foods.

City officials proclaimed the neighborhood could no longer be considered a food desert.

But just a few months after the grand opening, a crane truck fell through the top level of the connected parking deck, forcing the store to close for a week.

Just like that, Summerhill, at least part of it, was defined as a food desert once again.

Immediately, I thought back to November 2021 when, just before Thanksgiving, a Kroger on Metropolitan Parkway SW and Cleveland Avenue SW closed temporarily after thieves stole its electric wiring. The store would reopen a few weeks later. But, in the meantime, many residents in the area struggled to travel to other stores to stock up for the holiday.

I said then what I will say now: It doesn’t make sense that some neighborhoods are so close to the edge of food desert status that one grocery store closure can push them over the line.

Neighborhoods should have multiple options for fresh foods. And it shouldn’t take gentrification to sway large grocery chains to come into an area.

A few years ago, when I spoke with University of Georgia associate professor Jerry Shannon about the Kroger on Cleveland Avenue, he introduced me to the term “supermarket redlining.” This refers to the location decisions made by food retailers that are evidence of intentional disinvestment in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color.

“Neighborhoods with less resources tend to get less investment from larger corporations and chains because they are more inclined to invest their money in neighborhoods that already have resources,”said Angela Zhang, co-author of a new study from Emory. “This leaves communities with less resources having less access to these infrastructures and fresh produce.”

Summerhill has a major grocery store. But, like many other communities in metro Atlanta, it needs more.

I lived in Summerhill from 2012 to 2015, before the latest plan for redevelopment began to take shape. I had sold my first home in Atlanta and wasn’t sure where I wanted to live, so I rented a house on Crumley Street, not far from my daughter’s day care. I loved the community spirit and my neighbors, but my one complaint was one they knew all too well — there was no grocery store nearby.

Some people bristle, understandably, at the reference to Summerhill as a food desert. The label comes with such negative connotations that, in 2013, the U.S. Department of Agriculture began using “low income, low access” to describe these areas.

In 2019, before rapid gentrification, the section of Summerhill that falls south of Georgia Avenue and east of Hank Aaron Drive was designated as a low income, low access census tract. That’s because 23.5% of households did not have cars and were located more than one-half mile from a supermarket, according to data from the USDA.

Now, four years later, the same section of the neighborhood has homes priced at more than $700,000, and the community finally has a grocery store. But a truly revitalized neighborhood needs to provide more options for all of its residents.

Georgia Avenue, once a thoroughfare of unused buildings, is bustling with restaurants, a brewery and other businesses.

The opening of Publix marked the first time the area had a grocery store within a reasonable walking distance since the ones on Georgia Avenue began closing mid-century. The number of grocery stores had dropped from 15 in 1950 to four by 1970, according to Marni Davis, associate professor of history at Georgia State University.

The neighborhood reached its retail peak in the 1950s before the community was overrun by highways, a stadium and parking lots that sent residents with financial means fleeing to the suburbs.

This latest round of retail revitalization is more complicated, said Davis, who has done extensive research on the history of Georgia Avenue.

“In some ways, thank goodness that people have access to fresh fruit and vegetables and the kind of home conveniences to stock a house. At the same time, Publix is not cheap,” she said. “In some ways, it is in keeping with the other businesses on Georgia Avenue.”

What she loved about the history of Georgia Avenue was the relative ease with which someone without a lot of money could open a store for people without a lot of money to buy groceries.

“That is what I wish for the neighborhood, that there were more opportunities for that kind of bottom-up retail,” Davis said.

Major grocery stores go where the money is, but everyone deserves the opportunity to purchase fresh, healthy foods. In neighborhoods that have been historically neglected but are now being revitalized, all residents, including those with limited transportation and money, need more than one place to shop for groceries.

For many residents in Summerhill, the new Publix is a much-desired convenience.

And for others, it’s the only thing that stands between them and the food desert.

Read more on the Real Life blog (www.ajc.com/opinion/real-life-blog/) and find Nedra on Facebook (www.facebook.com/AJCRealLifeColumn) and Twitter (@nrhoneajc) or email her at nedra.rhone@ajc.com.