The Unity Group is saddened and dismayed to hear of the closing of the Walmart Grocery store on Shallowford Road. While we recognize that the overall goal is for businesses to reach a level that obtains profit maximization, in our estimation, this recent closure is indicative of a problem that has continued to be persistent in marginalized and disadvantaged communities for more than a decade. Throughout that duration, Food Lions have closed in multiple locations while Food City, Buehler’s and other neighborhood markets have been shuttered. These closures have only been exacerbated due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Foodindustry.com estimates that there are nearly 40,000 grocery stores in the nation that generate nearly $700 billion annually. Walmart is the largest grocer with over 4,700 stores that generates close to $200 billion annually. One point to note can be found in an article written in a 2016 edition of the Washington Post, “Poor, rural areas will be most affected by Walmart closing 154 stores,” and an August 2020 report by CNBC, “Why Grocery Stores Are Avoiding Black Neighborhoods”, which detailed that over 120 of the more than 150 Walmart grocery closures were in low income and minority communities.
Many contend that this most recent closure has compounded the lack of healthy grocery options for thousands of citizens and added to an already burgeoning food desert. The USDA considers a food desert as a low-income census tract where a substantial number or share of residents has low access to a supermarket or large grocery store. Notwithstanding, food security and justice advocates argue that the issue is much larger in scale and scope. In fact, in the growing field of food security and equitable access, advocates have shied away from using the term food desert because a desert is a natural ecosystem that is full of vibrancy, life, and natural confluences. They would argue that the lack of food security is a natural occurrence that is an interlocked injustice that is tied to the loss of land; the building of interstates and highways that decimated poor and black communities; redlining; environmental racism; housing displacement; and gentrification.
Dara Cooper, cofounder of the National Black Food and Justice Alliance, has described food apartheid as, “The systemic destruction of black self-determination to control our food (including land, resource theft and discrimination), a hyper-saturation of destructive foods and predatory marketing, and a blatantly discriminatory corporate controlled food system that results in our communities suffering from some of the highest rates of heart disease and diabetes of all time. Many tend to use the term food desert; however food apartheid is a much more accurate representation of the structural inequities perpetuated through our current system.”
Some of these structural forces that determine equitable food access can be found in Ashante M. Reeses’s, “Black Food Geographies: Race, Self-Reliance and Food Access.” What Reese does is use a community case study that serves as a counter narrative to the misconceptions and stereotypes that black and poor communities don’t need or want healthy food access and security. Contrary, she notes the resiliency and creative ways that these communities have become sustainable despite the external hardships and barriers that are often associated with food insecurity. Another attribute you can see in the book is the great agency of the community, who steadfastly build alternatives to contend with the lack of access.
One who has put this agency and resilience into practice is Leah Penniman, the author of “Farming While Black” and the owner of Soul Fire Farm in New York. The very mission of Soul Fire Farm is to “raise and distribute life-giving food as a means to end food apartheid.” Soul Fire Farm’s mission also centers on food sovereignty. In addition to training a new generation of farmers they provide food justice workshops, home gardens training, food deliveries aimed at minimizing food insecurity, and policy education.
One of the more important articles that shed light on many of the ills associated with black food insecurity and environmental racism is Van Newkirk’s, “The Great Land Robbery: The Shameful Story Of How 1 Million Black Families Have Been Ripped From Their Farms”, which appeared in a 2019 edition of the Atlantic. Over a 100 year period, 1 million black families lost what equated to more than 6 million acres of land, oftentimes because of what can be attributed to discriminatory practices such as lending and public policy. To this date, the USDA has not been equitable in its treatment of, and financial assistance to, black farmers and landowners. Many of these discriminatory practices were included in Pigford v. Glickman and those cases associated with the decision. Further, from a factual context, the National Black Farmers Association notes how few subsidies and funding avenues have been equitably distributed to black farmers since that case.
To concentrate back on the local issues associated with this closure, the Unity Group has received reports that on the surface seems problematic. We have heard that the store is closing because of a $4 million dollar profit loss that can be attributed to thefts and other unspecified occurrences. How is this comparable to other Walmart locations across this city? How do those numbers compare to the other closures we have identified that have taken place across the country, 120 of which are in communities with an income below $50,000? We have received reports that say that a group of citizens have known about this impending closure? It begged us to ask, who were these groups of citizens, and how long have they known about this impending closure before informing those people who will be most directly impacted? One final question we had was whether this Walmart grocery was receiving city, county or any government subsidy over the last five years? Over the last several years have Opportunity Zone funds, Payment Protection Program funds, or any emergency funds been granted to this location in order to serve the welfare and needs of the community? Finally, what alternatives are the current policy makers and those candidates running for office ready to help secure so that the food insecurity crisis we are experiencing becomes more sustainable?
The closing of the Walmart grocery on Shallowford Road has only compounded what has already been an imminent food shortage emergency in black, minority and poor communities. Supermarkets, which represent 90 percent of the healthy food sources for these communities, and other retailers have the right to make market-based decisions. Nevertheless, these decisions are often done without using a racial equity or socioeconomic lens. They do not equally weigh the macro versus micro outcome, and as a result, the community that has experienced the irreparable harm is left to use resiliency, agency and ingenuity in creating an alternative that might help mitigate these deficits. Likewise, the closure of this store is closely linked to many of the interlocking injustices that have befallen the marginalized communities for a century, like the interstates, disinvestment, gentrification and public policy. What we are experiencing is not a food desert, but we have little doubt that the black, poor and marginalized communities of this city and county have entered a crisis of food apartheid.
Unity Group of Chattanooga
Sherman E. Matthews Jr., Chairman
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I'm really upset about the closing of the Walmart on Shallowford Road. Not only because it hurts our community in not having a valuable resource, but it sheds light on a deeper underling statement, "African Americans fend for yourself."
There are several schools in this community as well as elderly who depend on the location of this business. But corporate America or local leaders tend to justify this ill-advised decision without even considering the impact.
Why not the store in East Ridge? Why not the store in Hixson? Why not Red Bank? Its simple. We do not matter so they do not care.
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I am handicapped and not able to walk very far at all. I live in the Ooltewah area and can be at one of three full size Walmarts within about 20 minutes. There are also a number of other grocery based stores within the same range. I doubt if anyone is going to starve if Walmart closes a store.
Businesses operate on profit/loss margin. Was this closing triggered by a combination of poor sales/loss? What did this community do before the store was built?