Reimagining the Urban Grocery

The sign for Mayberry Foodstuffs at the corner of Seventh and Main streets in Downtown Cincinnati includes a hint of irony. It announces itself as an "Urban Grocery Store," a very old concept that has nearly become extinct in Cincinnati, though many hope it will become a new trend.

Inside the 550 sq ft of space, owner Josh Campbell has stacked fresh produce, beans, rice, pour-your-own olive oil and a myriad of other food staples and specialties on handmade shelves and a few coolers. The store serves sandwiches all day, is the only place selling fresh groceries or craft beer after 6 p.m. in Downtown Cincinnati, and also has homemade peanut butter. Campbell eventually plans to grow herbs and keep honeybees on the roof.

Launching such a business has been a learning experience for Campbell, a chef and restaurateur by trade, because modern food consumers have very eclectic demands, and it's not easy for such a small operation to find all the right products.

"You're trying to please a lot of people in such a small space," he said. "We're running into a lot of problems, but we're finding people to help us solve them."

While 100,000 sq ft grocery stores in Cincinnati's suburbs display everything from exotic produce to patio furniture, in-house sushi experts and elaborate displays of freshly caught seafood, some residents in Cincinnati's urban core can't score a fresh apple.

While there are exceptions, like Over-the-Rhine's Findlay Market, many of Cincinnati's poorer urban neighborhoods don't have a full service grocery store. When the Roselawn Kroger closed three weeks ago, and the IGA in Clifton shortly thereafter, the number of those underserved grew even more.

For those without their own transportation, a trip to the grocery store can mean a one-hour bus ride with two transfers each way. For some elderly people who use grocery stores for their pharmaceutical needs, the closing of a grocery store can be catastrophic.

"You wouldn't think about turning off water in a neighborhood, why would you think about cutting off the food?" Dwight Tillery, a former Cincinnati Mayor who is the President of the Center for Closing the Health Gap asked. "That leaves the people there going to the fast food stores, and the corner stores to eat out of cans, as a way of life."

Areas with limited access to healthy food, which are often in minority and urban communities, are commonly referred to as food deserts. And while they may be on the rise in Cincinnati, so are a number of efforts to alleviate them.

This spring the Center for Closing the Health Gap will begin working with an organization called The Food Trust, which has received national recognition for work they've done solving food access problems in Pennsylvania.

The collaboration will work in three areas, the Center for Closing the Health Gap's executive director Renee Mahaffey Harris said. It will develop a strategy to attract grocery stores to neighborhoods that lack one, including new models of small-scale groceries for places that don't have the buying power to support superstores. It will encourage and enable "corner stores" to carry more healthy foods. And it will establish new food distribution networks in urban areas around Hamilton County. Those networks will include eight farmer's markets at African American churches around Hamilton County, mostly within the city limits, Mahaffey Harris said. The markets will open this spring, funded in part by a grant that Hamilton County was awarded by the Center for Disease Control.

The effort to attract grocery stores already has legislative backing. Eric Kearney, an Ohio State Senator from Cincinnati, proposed Senate Bill 47 two years ago. The bill would channel 10 percent of business tax money paid by grocery stores in Ohio into a fund that would be used to incentivize new stores to open in areas that lack one. The exact way in which the money would be apportioned is not written into the bill, Kearney said.

"I'm not really sure what attracts grocery stores, so I want to give the Department of Development some flexibility in that regard," he said. "I guess you could call it a grant, but it would be some type of incentive to get grocery stores in underserved communities."

Kearney said he phoned several grocery chains when he wrote the legislation, hoping he could find a company to work with him. Everyone he spoke with had already vetted the Cincinnati area, and decided against opening here. He said he hopes a new model of grocery distribution could be developed.

"I think Kroger and Meijer and Remke/Biggs are responding to their market, but what I would encourage them to say is 'there's another market out there,'" he said. "Maybe a Kroger can develop a model or a type of store that addresses the needs of these people, or there might be a grocer who's from another part of the country, or another part of the world, who can come here and offer that service."

Kearney said it doesn't have to be fancy, it just has to be a grocery store.

At the same time Kearney and the Center for Closing the Health Gap are working toward a solution, a myriad of other organizations and individuals are addressing the issue as well. Their efforts range from urban agriculture programs to nutrition studies and farmer's markets.

An event called The Food Congress, which will be in its third year this April, will bring a number of those food activists together at the Niehoff Urban Studio. National expert Mari Gallagher will present a "food balance study" that her firm is conducting in Cincinnati. That, and other studies by the Nutrition Council and Hamilton County Health Departments, could provide food-mapping information that would guide future policy decisions about how to provide access to healthy foods in Cincinnati.

Senator Kearney said it is efforts like these, and the increased levels of awareness, that will eventually help solve the food desert problem in Cincinnati - not necessarily the legislation he has introduced.

"Do I think this bill will pass the Senate and pass the House and Governor Kasich will sign it and wrap his arms around me and tell me 'Eric you're the greatest guy in the world?' No," he said. "But what I do think about it, is that it will raise enough awareness and an entrepreneur, or a group of entrepreneurs, will step forward and develop a concept for a grocery store. And to me that would be a success."

Photography by Scott Beseler.
Mayberry Foodstuffs
Grocery store locations with half mile walking radius
Angie, at the counter at Mayberry
Mayberry Foodstuffs from above
Fresh catch at Lukens at Findlay Market
Senator Eric Kearney
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