Grocery shopping is no longer an easy errand for west Macon resident Angelica Williams.
She sometimes spends two hours on two different buses to get to the Kroger in north Macon. It used to take her 30 minutes on the bus to reach the Pio Nono Avenue location before it closed in April.
Now the 28-year-old mom alternates going to different stores around town, trying to buy just enough to get her three-person family through the week, so she doesn’t have to carry too many bags on the bus.
If Williams wants to go to get everything she needs at one store, she has to make a full day of it.
“If you have anything else to do, you might want to just cancel it,” Williams said.
The area surrounding the vacant Kroger is now considered a food desert, devoid of fresh and nutritious foods within a one-mile radius. Instead, residents are limited to convenience stores and discount shops, where options are minimal and prices often steep.
It’s not easy to maintain a healthy diet on corner store shopping, said Cheryl Gaddis, program director for the master’s of public health program at Mercer University. She studies food access in Bibb and Houston counties.
At a gas station, shoppers are more likely to find potato chips than Yukon golds.
“Many offer things like hot dogs, pizza. Even some offer fried chicken now,” Gaddis said. “But those are not the healthy items that we want people to intake, and so, when they’re having to purchase things from the convenience stores, they’re not getting healthy items.”
Some corner stores offer more nutritious options, like prepackaged salads and sandwiches, Gaddis said, but they cost more than a hamburger at a fast food restaurant.
“Cost is going to increase as the availability of healthy items is going to decrease,” she said.
In food deserts, shoppers are more likely to suffer from chronic diseases like obesity and heart disease, Gaddis said. Children feel the effects, too.
“You’re going to see more children who are not succeeding in school,” Gaddis said, “because they’re more focused on, you know, trying to make sure they have something to eat as opposed to being able to focus on their school work.”
Where’s the food?
Grocery options are few and far between on the stretch of Pio Nono Avenue where the Kroger once stood.
In a quest to find pantry staples within walking distance, The Telegraph and GPB Macon assembled a shopping list of basic grocery items and set out on foot to find them. The list: milk, bread, eggs, chicken, bananas, apples, carrots, lettuce, beans, cereal, peanut butter and jelly.
At a Gulf gas station about a quarter-mile away, we found only two items on its list: beans and chicken — and the only chicken available was canned. The food aisles were stocked mostly with chips, candy and sugary drinks.
About a quarter-mile farther down the road, a Family Dollar store sold a version of each item on the list but mostly in frozen, packaged or preserved form.
The next-closest option was a mile-and-a-half’s walk from the shuttered Kroger. My Store, near the intersection of Anthony Road and Pio Nono Avenue, was the only nearby market that offered both fresh produce and meat, as well as non-essentials, like spices and sauces.
But our shopping list cost over $6 more at My Store than at Kroger. And while both My Store and Family Dollar accepted food stamps, the Gulf gas station on Pio Nono did not.
With no supermarkets nearby, shoppers have to take extra factors into account before making a trip to the store. Those without cars face extra obstacles, Gaddis said. The mile-and-a-half walk to My Store would make the store inaccessible for some.
“They’re going to have to take buses or find some other means of transportation to try to get to a grocery store,” she said. “So, that means paying to get there and then paying to get back home, and then also making sure that they’re able to carry all of the groceries that they’re purchasing back with them, using whatever transportation means that they have.”
In a sprawling metropolitan area like Macon, access to a vehicle can make all the difference. There’s no shortage of supermarkets in the suburbs.
The key is finding a way to get there.
‘It hurts a lot of people’
Chiquita Johnson drives dozens of friends and relatives to grocery stores around town, sometimes six or seven in a day. Johnson has offered free rides to friends without cars for years, and she said her trips to the market have increased about 75 percent since the Kroger closed last spring.
“It hurts a lot of people,” particularly those who live in the areas near the now-vacant store, Johnson said.
“Kroger was the best healthy and affordable food that was in this part of south and west Macon,” she said.
Without the Pio Nono Kroger, neighborhood residents still can access nutritious, low-cost groceries. They just have to do a bit more searching to find them.
The Mulberry Market in Tattnall Square Park accepts food stamps and offers a range of local produce, meat, dairy and baked goods each Wednesday afternoon. The Women, Infants, and Children Supplemental Nutrition Program, known as WIC, also hosts an annual farmers market outside the Macon-Bibb County Health Department.
Local nonprofit organizations pitch in as well. Volunteers at Mulberry United Methodist Church tend a community garden and donate the produce to the church’s food pantry. Some organizations also send traveling produce trucks to underserved areas, Gaddis said.
But Macon’s food deserts have grown in the past year. Since last fall, Kroger, Target and Harveys have all closed locations in neighborhoods where grocery options already were scarce.
“Closing down grocery stores is going to increase the number of people who are going to be considered food insecure,” Gaddis said.
The most obvious way to curb that food insecurity, Gaddis said, is to open more supermarkets with healthy, affordable options.
Until that happens, local residents will have to settle for the few options they’ve got.
“It’s hard to get to other places,” said Williams, the mom who sometimes spends two hours on a bus to grocery shop. “So, with us having that Kroger down there, it was easier. And we don’t have to go all the way across town to go here to another Kroger or to go two miles or something to go to another place.”