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Can South DeKalb become a food oasis?

Avondale Estates DeKalb County Trending

Can South DeKalb become a food oasis?

Neelah Hinds inside of the greenhouse.

This story was reported by Canopy Atlanta, a community-led journalism nonprofit that partnered with more than 50 South DeKalb residents to choose, report, and present stories. Read the full South DeKalb Issue here. To learn more about Canopy Atlanta’s work, sign up for their weekly newsletter here.

Story by Ariel Felton and Mike Rouse, South DeKalb Fellow

Photos by Nicole Buchanan and Mike Rouse, South DeKalb Fellow

Every day, a flood of South DeKalb residents cross the Flat Shoals Road bridge that hovers above I-20 to gain quick access to essentials at the Gresham Road Walmart Supercenter. For those traveling on foot, that bridge gives vital access to cleaning supplies, medications, clothes, a baby’s first birthday gift, and fruits and vegetables.

One Monday afternoon in early January, Rashid McNair took this exact walk—a quarter mile from his apartment complex—to go grocery shopping. Between working two jobs at Amazon and Costco, co-parenting his six-year-old daughter (at times on a weekly basis), and having controlled type one diabetes, eating healthy is important for McNair.

Walmart is the only source of food for miles. And in the 17 years that McNair has lived in South DeKalb, that’s been his experience.

“You might see someone having some fruits and vegetables, like at a gas station or in a parking lot,” McNair said. “But to my knowledge, there’s not anything consistent. There’s no place that we can go this day, this time close by in a neighborhood that’s going to have the local fresh fruits and vegetables that we need.”

For Rashid McNair, Walmart is the only source of food for miles.

Food insecurity continues to be an ongoing issue in South DeKalb and county-wide. In 2021, Urban Land Institute Atlanta and DeKalb County’s development arm, Decide DeKalb, conducted a study that acknowledged food deserts were prevalent in southeast DeKalb County. (By their definition, a food desert is where residents must travel over a mile using existing roadways.) The two agencies also developed recommendations for improved food access, including a list of potential grocery store locations that would help ease food access. One prime location would be the intersection of Gresham Road and Welland Avenue, just half a mile south from the Walmart where McNair shops.

As McNair entered Walmart, he felt the all-too-familiar gush of air as the sliding doors opened. It’s a light shopping day as he’s already been to Grant Park Farmers Market the day before.

McNair takes public transportation to Grant Park Farmers Market on Sundays. This fact is significant because the MARTA runs less buses on Sunday, which means longer waits for everyone.

Yet for him, the hour-long commute is still worth the peace of mind.

“At the farmers market, you know what you’re eating and know where it comes from,” he said, while browsing Walmart’s produce section. “Walmart is a totally different story.”

Rashid McNair on a grocery shopping trip.

While farmers markets are far from being a new concept, locals say they are hard to come by in South DeKalb. Both Avondale Estates and Your DeKalb Farmers markets are located 30 minutes away in Decatur, making it hard for residents without reliable transportation to rely on their services.

Think about it: Every other place that you go, they have these things,” McNair says, on why nutrient-dense food is easier to find elsewhere. “And if you ask them why, they’re probably going to say, ‘Oh, well, because there’s a demand for it, or it sells, this, that, and the other. And the only reason that they’re not here, and the only reason why they think that there’s not a demand for it or it won’t sell here, is because we’re Black.”

It’s clear that McNair’s neighborhood is a true example of supermarket redlining. Walmart is the only supermarket in the area; the only other source of fresh food for miles are discounted food markets or convenience stores. Supermarket redlining is a term used to highlight how the food options in certain neighborhoods show evidence of local disinvestment in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color.

Neelah Hinds grew up in the Candler-McAfee area. She attended Southwest DeKalb High, and remembers food scarcity being an issue since she was young.

Neelah Hinds standing outside of the greenhouse she manages at the school she teaches at in Atlanta.

“I just remember growing up and being hungry,” she says. “I remember shopping for groceries at the dollar store. That’s just not a way for anybody to live. I believe it contributes to health issues and mental issues. My people really always get the bottom end of the stick, and it’s frustrating.”

Unlike supermarkets such as Kroger, Publix, and certain Walmart locations, discount retail stores like Dollar General and Dollar Tree—the sort of places where Hinds felt she had no choice but to shop—offer mostly packaged foods and household items, but not fresh produce.

DeKalb County at large has about 70 dollar stores, and more than half of them are in Super District 7, which includes unincorporated DeKalb, according to Super District 7 Commissioner Lorraine Cochran-Johnson. Critics say this outsized presence discourages larger grocery stores with healthier food options from opening nearby.

“When [supermarkets] choose to come into a community, they’re concerned with two things: the amount of rooftops and the median household income,” she says. “The travesty of seeing these grocery stores that have left what has now become food deserts is that it would be darn near impossible to get them back into many of those communities.”

Cochran-Johnson also says that larger supermarkets used to be more prevalent in South DeKalb, but not anymore.

“If you follow census tracts, you can follow the development of those [small box] stores,” Cochran-Johnson says “They are going to communities that have a median household income of $40,000–$60,000. There’s a direct correlation between the presence of those stores and food deserts, as well as high rates of obesity, hypertension, and other adverse health conditions.”

In 2020, Hinds tried to take matters into her own hands by opening Candler Black Market near the Crest Center on Candler Road. Candler Black Market featured a variety of local vendors: small gardeners, artists, jewelry makers, and chefs.

But her biggest goals were to help fight food insecurity and supply chain issues by making farm-fresh produce easier to find, and spark a cultural shift from big box stores into the hearts and hands of the local community.

Candler Black Market partnered with Wholesome Wave Georgia’s Fresh for Less program, which matches SNAP/EBT dollars at participating farmers markets. For every dollar a customer spends, they receive another dollar to spend on fresh fruits and vegetables, up to $50 total.

Yet even with all of Hinds’ effort, Candler Black Market survived for only two years. The problem, she says, is multifaceted.

For one, she soon realized Candler Black Market was likely too small to attract local farmers.

“I realized that farms were going to the markets that they knew they were going to make a certain amount of money,” Hinds says. “If you’re [farming] to survive, you’re going where you’ll make the most money, which is hard to compete with.”

Another problem: her main customers were coming from outside of the Candler-McAfee area that she hoped to support.

“We saw a lot of people coming in from other places, but not from the actual area we resided in,” Hinds says. “We were passing out flyers. We were paying for advertising on Nextdoor, Instagram, and Facebook. We even did an interview with Commissioner Larry Johnson, and we saw more locals come out after that. But still, the majority of customers were people from outside of the area.”

Hinds wonders whether South DeKalb residents knew to look for farmers markets like Candler Black Market as an option for nutrient-dense food. When Hinds was still operating Candler Black Market, the market was open Saturdays and Sundays.

“You just got to retrain the people in your area to see beyond how we’re not a store, so it’s not open at your convenience, which kind of sucks.”

“I think people are more interested in what’s most convenient,” she adds.

Hinds says the final nail in the coffin of Candler Black Market was financing. Unable to continue paying venue fees and insurance out of pocket, she made the difficult decision to close the market last fall. It’s particularly frustrating, Hinds says, since food scarcity is a problem that everyone in the area acknowledges.

Inside of the greenhouse Neelah Hinds manages.

“I can’t tell you how many meetings I had with local politicians, with commissioners, with other nonprofit entities,” Hinds says. “Everybody was telling us about how great a thing we were doing and how much it was needed. But when it came down to tangible support, nobody did anything. It just felt like I was fighting by myself, and I couldn’t do it anymore.”

Commissioner Cochran-Johnson agrees. “Oftentimes when it comes to the smaller markets and smaller growers, they don’t have the publicity, and there may not be the organized effort and knowledge of their presence. It becomes difficult, because they need [sales] numbers to justify and sustain their presence. “

Many organizations are trying to tackle this issue. Fresh on DeK is a mobile farmers market that travels to food deserts to deliver fresh, seasonal produce. (Last year, Fresh on DeK delivered produce to over 11,000 DeKalb County residents.) However, their season only lasts 16 weeks each year, from May to September.

“There’s key information out there that people don’t have access to,” says EliYahu Ben Asa, owner of Atlanta Harvest. “As much as there’s a lack of access to fresh fruits and vegetables, there’s a lack of information about where to go to get these things.”

Atlanta Harvest is a Black family-owned farm and store that accepts SNAP/EBT dollars for custom boxes of produce, meats, dairy items, and more. Unlike traditional farmers markets that are open only one day a week, Atlanta Harvest is open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday through Friday, meaning local customers can be more flexible about when they choose to visit. Residents in Belvedere Park and parts of Candler-McAfee can also sign up to pick up their boxes at Avondale Estates Farmers Market.

EliYahu Ben Asa, owner of Atlanta Harvest.

In 2020, Atlanta Harvest relocated from middle Georgia to 20 minutes away from where Candler Black Market was located, in Ellenwood. This is technically outside unincorporated South DeKalb. And Atlanta Harvest relies on word-of-mouth and social media marketing to find its customer base throughout metro Atlanta. But Ben Asa says that folks would be hard-pressed to find an urban farmer located closer because the land isn’t available.

“That’s the most challenging for all urban farmers, or all farmers period,” Ben Asa says. “Land ownership is the most important thing and the thing that holds most farmers back. If you don’t own the land, you cannot transform the land to work for you.”

The Atlanta Harvest tent.

“We used to be in Jonesboro,” he adds. “But it was always our intention to set up a spot where we could deal more directly with communities that were food deserts, where locals had a lack of nutrition and access to fresh foods.”

Ultimately, people are on their own to either discover resources or create them. Ben Asa remembers posting about Avondale Estates Farmers Market on social media. Despite how Avondale Estates Farmers Market has been around for years, located around the corner from Your DeKalb Farmers Market, the general response he saw was, “Say, I never knew that this was here.”

If residents were made aware of local farmers markets, surely they would support them. That’s what McNair figures, anyway.

“I think they would support it,” he said, as he walked to Walmart. “This isn’t a want or a luxury. We’re talking about produce. If you put it in the right place, where it gets the proper traffic, and make it easy to get to, how could it not do well?”

Produce and signage at Atlanta Harvest.

One of the main promises of Commissioner Cochran-Johnson’s 2018 campaign was to mitigate the effect of “small box discount retail stores” like Dollar Tree. Her 2019 ordinance, which banned the issuance of land disturbance permits or business licenses for new small box discount retail stores in DeKalb County, was extended 11 times.

Then last December, the DeKalb County Board of Commissioners unanimously voted to increase distance requirements for small box discount retail stores in DeKalb County. Such stores must now be half a mile apart from each other, to make them harder to come into a neighborhood, and in turn, diminish crime and other negative outcomes associated with them.

The Board of Commissioners also voted to require all small box discount retail stores to devote 10 percent of its sales floor to “the sale of lean proteins, healthy grains, fresh or frozen meats, fruits, vegetables, and/or dairy products.”

In the future, Cochran-Johnson hopes to bring expanded small box discount retail store models like Dollar General X to DeKalb County. These stores, which can already be found in South Fulton, feature entire produce sections, as well as cold freezers with a wider variety of frozen vegetables and food items.

“I see an opportunity here to change a predator to a partner,” she says. “[Dollar stores] are already existing in communities that have extreme needs. So what can we do to help you carry items that will help the community where you exist?”

Back at Walmart, McNair gathered his items and exited the store.

As he entered the parking lot, he mused about changes he’d like to see in South DeKalb.

“The city should invest in incentives for more people to shop,” he said, “the same way they incentivize developers to gentrify.”