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Greenville’s Food Desert? No Más en Rio del Norte!   

Tropicana Supermarket Opens Near Airport

By Sydney Moseley
Rio del Norte Correspondent

Most Greenvillians seldom deign to venture into the hinterlands north of its three Tar River bridges, except maybe to visit a county office, fly to Charlotte or play Frisbee golf. After the Riverwalk Riot of 2014, one might be surprised to hear that all of our city’s wild life isn’t centered at Fifth and Cotanche and doesn’t peak at Halloween. There are wild places with wild critters within a mile of “Uptown Greenville,” in the wetlands beyond the Tar River.

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We’re all familiar with River Park North, the well-known nature park and star attraction of Del Norte–it is similar to much of the floodplain comprising the quarter-mile or so east of the Tar River. The Chamber of Commerce has yet to assign a fancy name to the area, so for the sake of this article, let’s use Rio del Norte. The sparsely populated region is home to deer, egrets, herons, even gray foxes . . . oh yeah, and an airport. But scattered about the swamps, public facilities, industrial sites and power transmission facilities are real people, few in number, but Greenville citizens nonetheless. They live their lives practically unnoticed by most of us.

Every day, thousands of those who make ECU and the greater city of Greenville tick commute around, below, above and through Rio Del Norte to work and learn and play with the tens of thousands who live on the south side. Since Hurricane Floyd the area has not been a destination, nor a consideration for many, with the look of a place one might stop at on the interstate for gas and then hasten away from with a wary eye in the rear-view mirror–making an escape while muttering something about being in “the middle of nowhere.” Del Norte is light years removed from modern Greenville. And the people living there must adapt to living in or on what is essentially a cultural island. This area, extremely close to the city center via bridges, is geographically separated by a river, lakes and a forested swamp. It is a world apart from the suburbs south, east and west of town–culturally, physically and economically. There is very little commercial infrastructure, and thus quality-of-life resources are sorely lacking north of the river. I’m not sure about the length of the Greene Street Bridge, but it serves as a time machine of sorts, transporting a north-goer back twenty years in less than a minute.

 A federally designated food desert

Image captured from http://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/food-access-research-atlas/go-to-the-atlas.aspx

Image captured 11/18.2014 from http://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/food-access-research-atlas/go-to-the-atlas.aspx

Recent news stories tout growth slated for Rio Del Norte, but that is likely because Greenville really has nowhere else to grow, rather than some new-found economic confidence in the region. The recent civic boosterism about northern growth belies a hidden fault line of poverty in the form of a statistic from the USDA. It may come as an embarrassment to hear that in Greenville we have a federally designated “food desert.” That ignoble term was introduced to our vocabulary recently as a villain partly responsible for a host of problems relating to obesity, a paradox befuddling public health advocates, and a focus of Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move program. Images of her working in the White House vegetable garden are commonplace in the media. Less well known is her behind-the-scenes politicking on behalf of improving food access in undernourished cities. There have been many more oppositional media reports about the premise that food deserts do not contribute to poor diet and that in large cities food choices from both fast-food outlets and groceries are more limited in affluent suburbs. Their methodology seems to ignore the transportation difficulties for poor people, sometimes without bus fare, vehicles or gasoline needed to shop for weighty groceries. When comparing distances to stores and restaurants for urban and suburban residents one must take into account whether those residents are toting their loads in a car or in their arms, whether walking or using public transportation. A gallon of milk weighs 8 ½ lbs.–too heavy to carry far if shopping on foot. That serves as yet another obstacle to poor families in food deserts struggling to feed their kids that the pollsters and analysts fail to acknowledge. Many journalists are countering the claims of the first lady and others with studies showing no link between lack of food access and poor diets, blaming instead lifestyles and other factors. The New York Times wrote that on October 2011 Michelle Obama said in a Chicago speech, “if people want to buy a head of lettuce or salad or some fruit for their kid’s lunch, they have to take two or three buses, maybe pay for a taxicab, in order to do it.” But for every study that claims increased access to groceries leads to better diets, there seems to be two claiming the opposite. One cites evidence that poor people buy more sugary sodas when made available at lower prices than convenience stores, a dietary problem itself.

“Food desert” is a catchy term and well suited for political sloganeering. Neighborhoods are designated by the USDA as “Low Income, Low Access” if a significant portion of the residents, as is often the case in poor neighborhoods, have difficulties obtaining fresh, affordable and nutritious groceries. Del Norte is a poor neighborhood within the limits of an affluent city recently ballyhooed as the fourth-fastest growing city in America. Fourth! You’d never know it driving through the northern part of Greenville.

Neighborhoods rate as “low income” if more than a fifth of the population falls below the poverty line and “low access” if a third of the population live more than a mile from an affordable grocery source. North Greenville between the Tar River, PGV Airport, Greenville Blvd. and Pactolus Hwy. qualifies under those guidelines as being an official food desert. This is more than a sociological or geographical designation–it is tied to public health in a most obvious way. Without good food, one cannot have good health, despite all the well-meaning objectives and goals of the Affordable Care Act. The problem is especially acute for families and seniors. Few seem to actually starve in food deserts; in fact, obesity can be an issue for low-access regions as a glut of fast food outlets and convenience stores–both with their particular nutritional shortcomings–fills in the holes of absent grocery stores. Messages from well-meaning first ladies about proper diet are wasted on people whose only fresh food choices are between apples or bananas at a gas station. Sure, there’s lots of space for gardens, but even if the city really helped poor folks get started growing their own healthy food, they still need to eat while working toward the summer harvest while often working long hours at low wages.

The Del Norte region lost hundreds of long-time residents to flooding after Hurricane Floyd. Although no one died in the rising waters, many who left never returned, and those who stayed until now have seen Greenville swell and grow in its eastern, western and southern flanks. 

Access to fresh foods North of the River

All kinds of restaurants have been popping up around Greenville in the last decade: fast-food drive-thru, sit-down-slow, phone-app-delivery. In addition to those options, Greenville’s ubiquitous modern supermarkets serve a range of hot meals. Meanwhile, the region north of the river has been stuck in a time warp–devoid of the familiar modern development seen in other parts of town. Food choices for Low-Income Low-Access households in the area can be counted on the fingers of one hand–unless it’s one of those weekend summer days that bring out an occasional roadside vegetable stand, the only fresh food available is bananas and apples at the Trade-Wilco Mart and a few wilted vegetables at Santa Rosa, a small Hispanic tienda. A planned Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market that has city leaders patting themselves on the back is slated for the corridor near 264. The new development, while welcome (but not unique in any way, since Wal-Mart is also opening similar markets throughout the affluent sections of Greenville) will do nothing to relieve the problem faced by LI-LA families in this particular food desert as it will be even farther away than the Food Lion for many residents.

Affordable food outlets abandoned the region when many people fled in the autumn of 1999; markets washed away as the homes they fed were flushed downstream. The few people that remained were stuck with a long drive for groceries. The potentially toxic combination of poverty and positioning make Del Norte a tough place for disadvantaged people to make it, but the rising tide of housing costs elsewhere in Greenville make leaving this flood-ravaged area even tougher. Lack of food access goes with the territory in poor neighborhoods, and the expense of transportation locks people into the cycle of making unhealthy food choices and thus suffering the penalty of lousy health. On Oct. 24, National Food Day, a day to raise our awareness of food-related issues and controversies, we might have noted the wondrous bounty available to most Americans, while bemoaning the need for food and food access for so many of our unfortunate disadvantaged class.

Our first lady, much-ridiculed by Republicans for her efforts, has stuck to the crazy idea that nutrition matters. As with education, however, many politicians think health and intelligence are important for everyone, but in varying degrees depending upon parental income. If poor people don’t like living in polluted neighborhoods with bad schools and no groceries then they should just pack up the kids and move. Remember your last move and how easy that was? Now try to imagine that move if you were financially destitute and without transportation. Families in Greenville, like elsewhere, aren’t left behind by choice. And they don’t prefer convenience-store food because it’s convenient; eating crappy food beats not eating food at all. Crappy food was all that was available in Del Norte without transportation or gasoline. Until now.

Hope for Rio Del Norte

There is good news that the drought may at long last be over. Welcome relief came October 23, a day before Food Day, with a grand opening at the new Tropicana Supermarket across Memorial Drive from the airport. An affordable grocery with fresh meat, fruit and produce will not only improve the diet of the locals but will also raise their self-esteem as there’s no pride living in an underdeveloped neighborhood. Management says their plans include hot food in the near future, both buffet-style lunches and taqueria-style Mexican take-out.

photo from Tropicana Supermarket Facebook page

photo from Tropicana Supermarket Facebook page

This new market, the third of a small down-east chain, has a distinctive Hispanic flavor. A quick look through the store revealed ten different versions of Mexican Mole sauce, Haas avocados and full verdant bunches of fresh cilantro as you would expect from a Latino market. But the Tropicana is not to be confused with the small neighborhood tiendas that have popped up in the region of late, serving as convenience stores and gathering places for our burgeoning immigrant community. Not only is there a large and well-stocked fresh produce section, but a first-class carniceria butchering fresh meat daily. International foods and traditional American products fill ample shelves between airy wide aisles in this well-lit and spacious building–it sounds trite but at the Tropicana there is truly something for everyone.

This supermarket is at its heart still a tienda. Two aisle-end displays near the modern computerized register terminals feature head-high pyramids of mesa flour–the stuff of handmade tortillas. There is even a well-stocked kitchenware section where you can find a tortilla press to easily make your own. Adjacent to that are no less than two forklift pallets of more mesa flour, as if the huge pyramids were insufficient to handle anticipated demand. These folks clearly expect to move a lot of mesa.

The neighborhoods beyond the Tar River were inundated by the great flood of ’99 and then partially razed. The old store in the new Tropicana site dodged the bulldozers but closed nonetheless. Beside the hundreds of vacant lots, the few homes that avoided destruction now house a decimated population, including many poor families and senior citizens. Entire city blocks abandoned after post-flood razing remain mostly free of development today. Apartment complexes are commonplace throughout most college towns, and Greenville is no exception–except in Del Norte where not a single multi-family dwelling larger than a duplex stands. Satellite imagery reveals a grid of well-paved but under-used streets crisscrossing the region, dotted occasionally by an older house or mobile home. A drive through reveals them to be modest but remarkably well-maintained properties, standing in stark contrast to some of Greenville’s other disadvantaged neighborhoods. Missing are the overt signs of squalor and neglect common elsewhere in Greenville’s poor neighborhoods–disturbing instead are the ubiquitous vacant lots, a testament to FEMA’s mission of buying out flooded homes and allowing them to remain vacant indefinitely–perhaps forever, but certainly until construction technology, flood management, engineering and politics can enable future growth. Local government could help with tax incentives, but the Tropicana opened without assistance from either the city or the Chamber of Commerce. That may be what it takes to develop Rio Del Norte to its full potential: entrepreneurs taking things into their own hands.

Captured 11/18/2014 from Google Maps

Captured 11/18/2014 from Google Maps

Del Norte has been mixed residential/industrial since before the flood, and remains home to concrete plants, soil and gravel suppliers, auto junkyards, metal recyclers and of course, the airport. Freight trains rumble through with regularity, and bully the local traffic much as they do throughout ENC, but there are fewer avenues for local drivers to avoid the inevitable delays. Noise from vehicles along Memorial Drive and Greene Street drone a constant undertone punctuated with regularity by passing trains, planes and helicopters. Greenville above the river is one of the least attractive real estate sectors for any number of reasons, some subjective and speculative–but anecdotally it all adds up to a perception that the river presents a barrier that most Greenvillians would never consider moving beyond. Fears of flooding, school districts, industrial pollution, ambient noise levels are all legitimate concerns for anyone considering a move to the north side. In addition, as if those weren’t enough hurdles for the real estate market, there is that pesky USDA food desert tag. A patriarch of a locally entrenched and extended family described the region’s isolation succinctly: “Now, across the river there, that’s Greenville. This here, is the suburbs.” Some wouldn’t be so charitable to the venerable neighborhood, but the distinction is clear. It’s the old “us vs. them” debate on a micro-political scale. Greenville might be behind the times statewide or nationally, but is way ahead of the curve where Rio Del Norte has been stuck for fifteen years.

Sid Moseley is a Durham native and an avid rock climber. He has lived from Atlanta to Yosemite to the California coast and back again, settling here in Greenville, north of the river, in fact. 

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Responses (2)

  1. ann eleanor says:

    Maybe some thought should be given for one of the churches to have a ‘Del Norte Umbrella Market.’ Another possibility is a community garden. Third Street School has been very successful in developing garden(s) at the school and throughout the neighborhoods. Just some thoughts.

    • sydney moseley says:

      there are some lots that the city has designated comm garden space, but without water service veggies are unlikely to last long in the heat, and while they are good sources at harvest time, that is not much of the calendar year. gardens are important to supplement diets but cannot sustain food access over the entire year

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