What is a Food Desert?
The Save-A-Lot grocery store on Harden Street will close this weekend, leaving lower-income residents in the area without a nearby grocery store.
The shop will shut down at 5 p.m. Saturday, after the Columbia Housing Authority, which has operated the store on a temporary basis, decided to get out of the grocery business.
“We never had any intention to be a grocery store operator,” said the authority’s interim executive director Ivory Mathews. “That’s just not in our wheelhouse.”
The housing authority stepped in when the store’s previous operators walked away in January. The building that housed the Save-A-Lot is owned by the housing authority’s non-profit arm Columbia Housing Authority Developments. It sits across the street from the housing authority office and in the shadow of the Oak Read high rise and the former Allen Benedict Court.
Housing officials wanted to ensure local residents’ access to fresh food and produce, but ultimately decided operating the store at 2016 Harden was taking up too much of the agency’s discretionary spending. The FoodShare program will continue to offer food boxes for pick up at the site, Mathews said.
They hope to find a new tenant to move into the space, but that could be a challenge, says Jason Craig, executive director of Sustainable Midlands.
“I’ve lost track of how many grocery stores and other businesses have tried and failed in that spot,” Craig said.
He believes there’s a need for a grocery store in the area, but while the housing authority may support the initiative, for a store to succeed in that location, “It will definitely take some creative thinking from a lot of people,” Craig said.
The closure will turn the area into a “food desert,” defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as an urban area where residents are more than a mile from the nearest grocery store. The next closest store, the Food Lion at 1001 Harden, is a little more than a mile from the Save-A-Lot location.
Ashley Page with the Columbia Food Policy Committee said the Save-A-Lot is only the most recent grocery store to shut down in Columbia. Residents from North Main Street to West Beltline have been traveling to the Harden Save-A-Lot after people in those neighborhoods lost their own local grocery stores.
“On Saturday, folks will be wondering, ‘What’s next for me? What’s next for my community?’” Page said.
Local community groups are working to find temporary alternatives for local residents as a “stop gap” measure, Page said. Mathews is also promoting a program for city bus riders — Comet to the Market — that gives riders a discounted lift to participating grocery stores, as well as discounted rideshares like Lyft or Uber through a public transportation program.
Residents can also use vans provided by the housing authority to get rides to grocery stores and doctor’s appointments, the director said.