A couple weeks ago I dropped my cell phone. This is a common occurrence that happens daily rendering what was once a very useful, attractive device into a treacherous collection of glass particles and intermittent service. Not the end of the world, I know, but annoying enough to make a dent in my week.
Fixing what would ordinarily be an easy thing if, say, I still lived in the middle of San Francisco or Manhattan, has become a task that has fallen so far down the totem pole because of the lack of proximity to my service carrier near where I spend more than 90% of my time. This unfortunate accident also happened during the time when moving residences left me without internet service for over two weeks.
Whereas before, when I lived in more accessible neighborhoods, I could easily hop on a bus or walk to a cell phone shop, now I have to drive miles across town to an area inconvenient to where I work and live to investigate my options.
What I’m trying to say is that food deserts are bereft of more than just food. There are no bookstores. Toni Morrison will not be reading excerpts from her latest novel around the corner from where I live. There are no AT&T cell phone shops. I cannot easily compare how a phone feels in my hand before purchasing it. There are few, if any, banks. There are no bike shops. There are no dry cleaners. There are no gyms. There are no pet shops. There are so many things that are missing that I have to leave the neighborhood to find that this last year can be chalked up to one big ascetic lifestyle shift. Things I took for granted when I was able to easily access them when living in other, more affluent parts of cities are just not around.
Newsflash: Food deserts lack more than just food.
Yet, current conversations around health and obesity seem to be hovering around mobile grocery concepts to solve what is essentially an infrastructure problem that was created with purpose.
Food deserts exist because actual policies were enacted that created deserts where once there were functioning and healthy communities. Redlining was common amongst banks and insurance companies so that individuals and businesses could not receive the financing needed to buy or maintain property. Freeways and eminent domain plowed through areas deemed not worth preserving, ruining businesses and neighborhoods. Policies ensured whole swaths of land where brown people like me lived would not see investment dollars, would not see growth, would not see health, and would not continue to flourish.
You see, when considering a mobile solution, it is an entrepreneur that is invested in, not a community. That entrepreneur can go into the community, peddle food, and leave again without leaving any lasting change in its wake. Some people will access this roving food. And some will not. The community as a whole will see little, if any, change. It will have as much impact as the ice cream truck that came through my cul-de-sac when we were kids.
Where The Boxcar Grocer differs in its perspective is that we believe the only way to enhance the health of a community is to commit to enriching that community by 1) investing in the actual community 2) improving real property within the community by putting a brick-and-mortar store there, and 3) being a reliable part of the community.
Funny enough, building another Boxcar location does not cost much more than a mobile truck but the impact is more long lasting and reverberates farther throughout the community. A community with a proper store in it provides a more stable neighborhood, one where prospective homebuyers would like to live. It also encourages other entrepreneurs to open up businesses in the area.
A community with multiple healthy, tax-paying businesses is a community with stable schools, actual sidewalks, and good drainage. (We are in a food desert. The schools are not so good. The curbs/sidewalks are so broken up a woman in a wheelchair last week got stuck trying to power up a curb a block away and it took my brother and two other people to lift her chair so she could be on her way. And the drainage system is so bad that we have multiple floods each year that impede business because the City of Atlanta will not provide a storm water outlet nor upgrade the city’s broken clay pipes for the property on which we sit.) Anyone who has ever read through and paid a commercial property tax bill understands how many city services, including schools, benefit from the thousands of dollars commercial property owners have to pay each year to retain control of their property.
Every week people who are looking for places to start businesses ask us if the neighborhood is a good place to have a business. Business attracts business. Clean, well maintained areas attract reputable customers and people who want to buy residences.
Putting too much emphasis on mobile options keeps the very people at the bottom of the rat race running around trying to follow a truck to survive at a time when we all need to take a moment, stop moving, and figure out how to build and benefit from living in a healthy, fully functioning community.
© 2012 The Boxcar Grocer.