OPINION: Coffee shops are nice perks; good grocery stores are essential

Tyana Baker (right) and her mother, Theresa Baker, head to their car after picking up groceries at a Kroger in Stone Mountain. The grocery giant recently met with customers of the Kroger store on Metropolitan Parkway to discuss concerns about the condition of the store. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Credit: Schaefer

Credit: Schaefer

Tyana Baker (right) and her mother, Theresa Baker, head to their car after picking up groceries at a Kroger in Stone Mountain. The grocery giant recently met with customers of the Kroger store on Metropolitan Parkway to discuss concerns about the condition of the store. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

On the evening of April 17, residents of the Sylvan Hills, Capitol View and Perkerson neighborhoods logged on to a video conference with representatives of the grocery giant Kroger.

The two parties were both there to talk about Kroger’s Metropolitan Citi-Center location. It turned out, however, they had different aims.

The residents, some of whom were members of the neighborhood planning unit NPU-X, were there largely to share concerns about the condition of the store and food quality. They wanted to secure guarantees that the issues they identified — dirty bathrooms, outdated checkout lanes, unresponsive management, inferior produce and meat products — would be addressed.

Kroger reps wanted to talk about what items the store’s patrons wanted to see on the shelves.

It didn’t take long for the mood of the meeting to sour. Some of the residents would walk away characterizing the conversation as “disastrous.” I don’t know how the supermarket reps felt it went; Kroger hasn’t responded to my request for comments.

A grocery store isn’t like just any other business. It’s intrinsic to a community’s well-being. Coffee shops and cafes may be nice perks, but no business is more important to a community than a grocery store.

The quality of a grocery store also often signals something else — the perceived quality of that neighborhood.

The Kroger located on Metropolitan Parkway first opened in the 1980s.

During the video conference, the representatives for Kroger said the store is due for an update in 2.5 years. They indicated they were prepared to listen to concerns about the quality and variety of products available at the store location.

But residents pushed for the business to enter into a written agreement to address store improvements. The Kroger reps declined.

“I was taken off guard by the intransigence of Kroger representatives and their lawyers to not enter into any sort of agreement,” said Zach Adriaenssens, chair of NPU-X. “It has caused a stir in our community.”

Here’s why some residents are riled up: There aren’t that many alternatives close by.

This is the community where in 2021, the same Kroger store was forced to close days before Thanksgiving. Thieves had stolen electric wiring, leaving the store without power. Some of the surrounding neighborhoods became food deserts overnight. It took several weeks and an investment of $1 million dollars to reopen the store, according to Kroger officials.

That was an inconvenience created by one particular situation. But NPU-X members know there’s a larger issue — grocery stores can play a big role in the stabilization and growth of neighborhoods.

Residents have asked Kroger to move ahead on renovations to the bathrooms, the entrance and checkout before the set timeline. They also want new store management and a commitment to a plan to pay employees a minimum of $15 per hour.

Meanwhile, many of those who have no other option than to shop at this Kroger store, because of limited mobility, have been afraid to push too hard or ask for too much. Even if the store isn’t up to par, it’s all they have.

“We don’t want to see them go. We just want to see them improve,” said Ruben Burney, chair of the Perkerson Civic Association. Burney and many other residents have lived in the area for 40 years or more. They have seen the store shift from one of the most innovative to what they describe as one of the most neglected.

“Many people in the neighborhood say ‘I don’t even want to go to that store anymore,’” said Dianne Bryant, one of the first employees hired at the store. “If you could make it the kind of store that people wanted to shop at, it would mean they don’t have to drive five miles to a different store.”

The last time I wrote about food deserts in Atlanta, some readers expressed disbelief that they still exist. The federal government defines a food desert as a low-income tract with at least 500 people or 33% of the tract’s population living more than 1 mile (in urban areas) from the nearest supermarket or grocery store.

When we talked a few years ago, Jerry Shannon, associate professor of geography at the University of Georgia, explained the concept of “supermarket redlining” — how major retail food chains invest and disinvest in neighborhoods based on changing demographics. If the Metropolitan Kroger were to close, some surrounding areas would become food deserts again.

Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens has pledged to eliminate food deserts in the city. “We’ve reached out to grocery chains and even offered incentives — no takers. So, we will make it happen for the people directly!” he wrote in a recent social media post. The city is now looking for contractors who are willing to partner with Invest Atlanta to develop and operate a municipal grocery store.

Those are welcomed efforts, but they could take time to develop. The neighborhood planning unit for Sylvan Hills, Capitol View and Perkerson is tired of waiting for change. Adriaenssens said he plans to ask other neighborhood groups to help push Kroger for improvements. He’s also asking Kroger management to take a walk through the store with community members.

I’m not sure what it will take for all Georgia residents to have access to well-maintained and well-stocked grocery stores. Or what incentives might compel large grocery chains to locate stores in needed areas. But, at the very least, Adriaenssens and other neighbors deserve to have their concerns heard and fully considered.

Read more on the Real Life blog (www.ajc.com/opinion/real-life-blog/) or email her at nedra.rhone@ajc.com.