Knoxville's Food Deserts

USDA designates local areas with the most need and the least access to groceries

Publix. Costco. Whole Foods. The news has been nothing but bright in recent months for local grocery shoppers.

That is, unless you live in one of the 20 Knoxville neighborhoods that are federally designated food deserts. If you're counting, that's 59,887 people, out of the city's 178,874 residents. That's almost exactly a third of Knoxville's population.

Not all of those 60,000 people are in the same dire straits, of course. If you look at the geographical locations of everyone's residences, only 39,699 of those 59,887 residents actually have low access to affordable, healthy groceries. But even if you micromanage the statistics further (which we'll get to in a minute), you still end up with a number well above the national average—a telling number, as Knoxville was the first city in the country to start working on food policy issues, back in 1982.

"This is a priority issue," says Stephanie Welch, the chair of the Knoxville-Knox County Food Policy Council. "We find the people that have the least struggle the most with access."

So what exactly is a food desert? It's just as unhealthy as dessert, but it's a lot less fun. The United States Department of Agriculture defines a food desert as a census tract where the majority of the population is low-income and a large portion of that population lives at least a mile away from a supermarket. (In rural census tracts, that distance is 10 miles.)

A mile may not sound like a lot—and it's not, if you own reliable transportation. But what if you don't? Picture the number of trips you make just from your driveway to your house after a larger shopping expedition to Kroger. Now picture carrying all those bags a mile home.

Oh, but there's the bus, you say? Okay, picture loading up all those bags in a foldaway rolling cart and sitting outside on a June afternoon waiting for the bus to take you two miles—a bus that comes only once an hour, a bus that is highly unlikely to stop on your doorstep. Picture doing that at age 75.

But transportation isn't the sole issue. While there might not be a Kroger next door, there's likely to be a convenience store or a corner shop or bodega somewhat close—somewhere where you can walk and get milk if you can't wait on the bus.

But what if that milk is $6 a gallon? A 2008 study by University of Tennessee public health nutrition graduate students found the lower-income sectors of East, South, and Central Knoxville had higher food costs with a higher percent cost for fruits and vegetables; the same basket of groceries cost an average of $20 more than in West Knoxville. When you're on food stamps, that extra $20 is a big deal.

Of course, not all Knoxville residents in food-desert areas are on food stamps. And while about 20 percent of the city's population does live below the poverty line, they aren't all in the neighborhoods that are food deserts—the Magnolia Avenue corridor, for instance, is not a food desert, but Island Home is. And while the 7,628 residents of the University of Tennessee campus—another designated food desert—may be broke and may not have a grocery store nearby, it's hard to worry about their access to fresh food, since they have meal plans.

Still, if you leave UT and Fort Sanders and Downtown completely out of the equation, assuming that all the low-income residents in those census tracts are students (and that the ones who aren't are possibly offset by students who live in other neighborhoods), and if you assume that people with low access to grocery stores are hunky dory if they aren't low-income, then you still end up with about 9 percent of Knoxville's population that is low-income and living in a food desert. And over 1,900 of those households don't have vehicles—close to 40 percent of the residents of the Mechanicsville, Western Heights, and Lonsdale neighborhoods.

Nationally, the percentage of people living in low-access areas is 5 percent. There is no food desert in Knox County outside the city limits, just in Knoxville. There is no food desert in Blount County. Nor Sevier County, nor Jefferson, nor Grainger, nor Union, nor Loudon. Given that this is an issue the city has been working on just under 30 years, is it realistic to think things can change?

Welch, who also runs the Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities initiative at the Knox County Health Department, says that it's imperative that they do.

"This really should be on people's radar more than it is," Welch says. A lack of access to fresh and healthy foods has been linked to childhood obesity and the worsening diabetes epidemic, which is why First Lady Michelle Obama has been promoting the Healthy Food Financing Initiative as part of her "Let's Move" campaign. (The campaign has possibly become better known for the videos of Obama and Beyoncé encouraging children to dance at elementary schools.)

The HFFI includes a range of loans, grants, and tax credits to support "developing and equipping grocery stores, small retailers, corner stores, and farmers' markets selling healthy food." In addition to the federal program, Democratic state Sen. Andy Berke of Chattanooga has a plan to help Tennessee.

In this most recent legislative session, Berke introduced the "Tennessee Food Desert Relief Act," which would empower local development authorities "to issue revenue bonds and to make the proceeds available for loans to develop" grocery stores in areas "that private industry alone would be otherwise unable to serve, at interest rates lower than would otherwise be obtainable." The legislation didn't make it out of committee this year, but Berke has high hopes for next year.

"We've gotten tremendous support," says Berke. "We've had widespread bipartisan interest." Berke says in addition to the health issues it creates, the food desert is also an economic development issue, as new grocery stores and markets would provide jobs to people who need them the most in the areas where they live.

But Jarron Springer, the president of the Tennessee Grocers & Convenience Store Association, says it's not that simple.

"From our industry standpoint, it's not just about borrowing money but about sustaining that store for a long period of time, long enough to be able to pay that money back," Springer says. "Grocery stores are essential to neighborhood development, but at the same time they are businesses."

Springer says that profit margins for grocery stores are typically around 1 to 2 percent. Without a certain amount of foot traffic, without a certain amount of money spent in them, stores are likely to fail. Springer says the TGCSA is in no way opposed to Berke's bill, but he doesn't see how low-interest loans are likely to encourage more grocers to locate in food deserts.

"It's not because they can't get a loan that they're not opening there, it's because they look at that area and don't think it will be sustainable to have a business there."

That sustainability, he says, is why the few stores that are in food deserts—those neighborhood corner markets—are so expensive. Springer says the HFFI options have more possibility (although he emphasizes it is not about the industry wanting government subsidies), but a long-term solution to the food desert issue is going to take a multi-pronged approach.

Springer is also one of the members of a new statewide project funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation under the aegis of The Food Trust, a Philadelphia-based non-profit that has had success with leveraging public-private partnerships to get supermarkets to open in underserved areas in Pennsylvania. The Tennessee version will meet in July to figure out what programs or initiatives might be feasible, but any changes to Knoxville food deserts will be years in the making. In the meantime, Welch says, the Food Policy Council hopes to build up more of a local focus on the issue—and if they succeed, who knows, maybe Publix will one day be in the suburbs and the city.