Changing the language of food scarcity in Dayton
Some people say the term “food desert” doesn’t speak to the larger issues at play. Is “food apartheid” more accurate?
It's a hot August afternoon at the Kroger on Siebenthaler Ave. in West Dayton. Erica Crawford is loading groceries into her car. There isn’t a Kroger in her neighborhood. But shopping there is not the highlight of her day.
“I normally don’t come to this Kroger, this is the ghetto Kroger,” she said.
Crawford lives near Drexel, a West Dayton neighborhood lacking access to full-service grocery stores. She said she prefers shopping at the Kroger on W. Alex Bell Road south of Moraine because it offers more variety, and because the store is nicer.
Other shoppers said the Kroger on Siebenthaler Ave, is dirtier, poorly managed and the produce isn’t as fresh.
James Jones lives in Dayton near the Kroger store. He’s seen other grocery stores in West Dayton close during the last few years. He says the ones left have deteriorated in quality and he rather shop in suburban stores such as in Englewood.
“You got this piece of junk and you can smell the fish counter before you get to it.” Jones said. “But that's how it goes on this side of town. They took the stores away, ain’t nothing here.”
Some believe that there’s a pattern. They say it’s no accident that Kroger and other grocery stores have been closing in more low-income and predominantly Black neighborhoods in Dayton.
The term is food desert — but Kenya Baker from West Dayton thinks people need to look at that language with a critical eye. Instead, she said the term should be food apartheid.
Baker is a member of Co-op Dayton. She believes thinking about communities that lack access to grocery stores as a desert doesn’t really describe areas like West Dayton. It’s not something natural, like a desert. It’s intentional.
“The lack of access is definitively an act of government and corporations,” Baker said. “So why would we call it a food desert?”
A history of disinvestment
The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines food deserts as areas with low income households, inadequate access to transportation, and a limited number of food retailers providing fresh produce and healthy groceries for affordable prices.
Baker said once you look at the history of disinvestment and redlining — which prevented Black people from living in certain parts of the city — it’s no wonder that Black communities often lack access to healthy and affordable food today.
“We believe that all of this is very intentional and it's just another symptom of the disenfranchisement, divestment and isolation of Black people in spite of integration.” Baker said.
The Fair Housing Act of 1968 defines redlining as the practice of denying loans and other services to certain applicants — largely Black Americans — even if the person is eligible for the loan.
Redlined areas, which were concentrated in parts of west Dayton, were labeled as “hazardous” or areas with an “undesirable population, or an infiltration by it," according to a federal housing program known as the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation.
The practice prevented generations of families from gaining homeownership and drew investment out of Black neighborhoods, according to Baker.
Kroger claims to be among the world’s largest retailers, and its strategy has been to keep expanding its Marketplace stores, which tend to be bigger and carry more high-end products. The stores are usually over 100,000 square feet and offer wine bars, an expanded variety of organic foods and even household goods such as furniture.
Even after repeated requests, the company did not provide a comment for this story.
However, a WYSO analysis shows the majority of Kroger Marketplace stores in Dayton, Columbus and Cincinnati are located in ZIP codes with predominantly white populations and higher median incomes.
In recent years, Kroger stores and other grocery stores such as ALDI have also closed in west Dayton. In 2018, ALDI company representatives said the closing was “based on many metrics we use to evaluate" its stores,” according to a Dayton Daily News article.
In nearby Springfield, a Kroger closed on South Limestone Street in 2020, a predominantly Black and brown area of the city.
In Columbus, a Kroger store closed in 2018 near the northeast side of which is a low-income community. When it closed, it made the surrounding neighborhood an official “food desert.” A corporate affairs manager for Kroger cited a lack of profit for the location, according to a Columbus Dispatch article.
Some claim a decrease in manufacturing jobs and a lack of livable wage jobs in Dayton has contributed to the decline of business and a disparity in wealth, particularly among Black and brown communities.
Regardless, Baker and others still view this as evidence of a food system that does not serve all citizens equally.
Urban development as an obstacle
Jill Clark is a food policy professor at Ohio State University. She says “food desert” isn’t the right phrase for what’s happening.
“First of all, there are lots of things to live in the desert, so people have a misconception of what a desert is to begin with,” Clark said. “It suggests a lack of food when really there is, if you're talking about urban areas, there is like a plethora of unhealthy food.”
Kroger Marketplaces may not be located within lower income communities, but it is easy to spot fast food restaurants, gas stations or Family Dollar stores — places that often sell food that is highly processed and not fresh or nutritious.
Clark said there are plenty of reasons companies may find it easier to build outside of cities.
One reason is the concentration and consolidation of grocery store retailers. As a result, there are fewer stores with bigger footprints that are more difficult to develop in dense urban areas.
It also means retailers are more responsive to changing consumer tastes. But changes often come with higher costs associated with greater variety and additional services, according to a USDA report.
Businesses in urban areas also have to deal with more complex zoning and permit approvals. Real estate tends to be more expensive, and urban spaces tend to come with higher construction and operating costs.
“It’s really difficult to get enough land, to get parking to work, to get turn radiuses for semis.” Clark said.
Clark said that grocery stores are also for-profit businesses that have an incentive to go where the money is, which ties in with the movement of wealth to the suburbs.
In the United States, Black and brown communities face higher rates of unemployment, poverty and food insecurity. In 2020, Black households were three times more likely to be food insecure compared to white households, according to a USDA national food insecurity report.
Fixing that requires a lot more than just opening a new grocery store.
amaha sellassie, the president of the board of the Gem City Market, said the solution has to be determined by the community.
“Part of it is everybody realizing that they're actors and not objects,” sellassie said. “The community has gifts and talents that it can pull together to create the shared future that it wants to see.”
Some point to the Gem City Market on the corner of Salem and Superior Ave. in northwest Dayton as part of the solution to the problem of food access. It's a worker and community owned grocery store that opened in 2021 after years of community meetings and planning.
sellassie said the market is more than just a grocery store, it centers around the community, too.
He added it’s that kind of collective community engagement that will lead to the reimagining of black communities in west Dayton.
“What do you want to see as far as schools, shops and jobs and parks? It requires us to be actors in the story that we're creating," sellassie said. "We’ve got to create our own narrative for our own story and then act it out.”
Both Jill Clark and Kenya Baker said part of the solution to food insecurity in communities of color requires thinking about the broader context of racism.
Baker believes it’s time to move beyond the term “food desert” and to call the situation for what it is.
“Food apartheid speaks to the man-made nature of this condition,” Baker said. “I think when people begin to contemplate the man-made nature of lack of food access, then they begin to come up with viable solutions. Because they realize that if man can design it, then man can redesign it.”
Food reporter Alejandro Figueroa is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.