The Environmental Journal of Southern Appalachia

Memphis takes a stand against convenience stores that feed health disparities

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Citing a dearth of grocery stores and healthy food options, Memphis officials mull action 

This story was originally published by Tennessee Lookout.

“In the poorest Memphis neighborhoods, gas stations serve as the nearest and sometimes the only store with groceries for nearby communities, albeit ones offering unhealthy fast and convenience foods. The University of Memphis noted that the city’s overall poverty rate is 21.7 percent, and rates are even higher among communities of color and among children, with a child poverty rate of 35 percent.”

In some areas of Memphis, there are more gas stations than grocery stores. While a citywide moratorium placed a hold on new gas stations, businesses are still seeking permission from City Council to open against the wishes of local communities.

In March, City Council voted in favor of halting permitting of any new gas stations. Businesses now need to go through the Land Use Control Board of Memphis and Shelby County for permission, and their request would need final approval from City Council. 

“It seemed like every week we were passing an ordinance to allow two or three more service stations and we didn’t  feel like we had a handle on it. We felt like that needed to calm down,” said Councilman Jeff Warren.

At an October meeting, council members debated whether Broad Avenue needed another gas station (and convenience store). Hundreds of residents in the nearby neighborhoods signed a petition urging council members to vote against allowing another gas station in their community. 

“We do not want nor need a gas station at this site. That would make four gas stations within a mile radius. . .I fully expect you to listen to the money, rather than the neighbors,” said one resident.

Council members concluded the meeting without making a decision, opting to delay the vote for a month, but the response from local residents was clear: there were more than enough gas stations in communities needing other types of stores. 

“Who in their right mind would add a fourth gas station on a street that’s a mile long?” said another resident.

Over the span of 20 to 30 years, Memphis officials permitted gas station after gas station to open throughout the city to the point that “there’s 10 times more per population than Nashville has,” said Warren. 

Gas service stations are a lucrative business. According to Forbes, the market relies on minimizing the distance that consumers have to travel, and competition means that at any given intersection, gas stations are often located on each corner. 

“It’s capitalism at its best. It’s the American way. Competition. That’s what this is about. Let the best competitor with the best product thrive,” said a supporter at the Oct. 5 council meeting.

Memphis officials plan on beautifying existing gas stations and the neighborhoods they are in, but the gas station conundrum belies another issue facing many Memphis residents.

In some of Memphis’ poorest neighborhoods, gas stations serve as the nearest and sometimes the only store with groceries for nearby communities, albeit ones offering unhealthy fast and convenience foods.

The University of Memphis noted that the city’s overall poverty rate is 21.7%, and rates are even higher among communities of color and among children, with a child poverty rate of 35%. Although COVID-19 caused widespread closures of local businesses at a rate of 32.4%, many residents across Memphis were already living in areas with few grocery or convenience stores. 

Part of the problem is that low-income communities aren’t attracting healthier options for foods, said Rhonnie Brewer, director of fund development at the Memphis Urban League, a civil-rights organization. 

Years ago, Brewer received funding from Memphis City Council to conduct a grocery store feasibility study and found that while there were cheaper plots in low-income neighborhoods, these communities could not sustain an average grocery store. 

Large grocery stores filled with every convenience necessary – such as a bank, a clinic and a gas station– tended to be located outside of Interstate 240, which loops around the city. For communities located within the loop, options were scarce.  

“If I’m a business, I’m looking for what’s best for my business, not the people,” said Brewer.

Instead, these cheaper plots of land attracted gas-service stations that often offer foods high in sugar andstarch. For residents with limited transportation, these gas stations continue to serve as a nearby source of food.

“We really don’t need more, especially in neighborhoods with no grocery stores,” said Warren.

 In some of Memphis’ poorest neighborhoods, gas stations serve as the nearest and sometimes the only store with groceries for nearby communities, albeit ones offering unhealthy fast and convenience foods. The University of Memphis noted that the city’s overall poverty rate is 21.7%, and rates are even higher among communities of color and among children, with a child poverty rate of 35%.

Instead, community-health advocates are seeking sustainable ways to feed communities with few food options. 

While some communities have started their own community gardens, other organizations are seeking to use the cheap land located in low-income neighborhoods to create markets that local residents can sustain. 

Kevin Birzer, founder of the Giving Grove, started his Kansas-based organization as an alternative approach to building food security among communities in food deserts nationwide. Starting three years ago, the Giving Grove located local community organizations with empty plots of land in Memphis in order to plant fruit trees.

“You go to a corner and it’s a rough corner. It’s got trash strewn on it and it’s not in a great neighborhood. It’s kind of an eye sore, so you clean it up and start planting trees,” Birzer said. “It’s pretty magical.”

Depending on the tree, fruit trees typically take three to five years to reach maturity. If nursed properly, each tree can produce up to 300 pounds of fruit a year, and residents were free to take the fruit of their labor. 

In three years, the Giving Grove planted 13 micro-orchards — or 98 fruit trees, two nut trees and 59 brambles — near faith-based communities and schools. By doing so, residents now have access to healthy calories while helping fight climate change as a community. 

Although COVID-19 stopped Birzer’s expansion in Memphis, he hopes to start planting trees as soon as spring of 2022. In the meantime, there’s at least a few local residents dedicated to keeping the orchards healthy for the local community. 

“It’s been one of the most rewarding things in my life,” he said. 

The community’s ability to sustain food markets is key but is complicated by gas stations taking up any available space.

“I would say that having a large number of gas stations could potentially be very problematic for individuals in low-income communities because it lessens the opportunity for them to have access to healthier options for food but also for other basic necessities because the space is not there,” Brewer said.

The gas-station moratorium has at least plugged up the problem for the time being, allowing community leaders to find other solutions.

“Grocery stores are a market decision and more complicated to solve. Someone needs to make money, so we’re looking into how to get bonafide markets in those areas to get people healthy foods but making money,” Warren said.

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