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A skyline that sprouts new buildings at a dizzying pace. Neighborhoods dotted with new breweries and renovated mills. Thousands of new apartments springing up beside light rail lines. The signs of Charlotte’s booming prosperity are everywhere. But that prosperity isn’t spread evenly. And from Charlotte’s “corridors of opportunity,” it can seem a long way off, more like a distant promise than the city’s reality.

Fried, processed, 'Everything but healthy': How Charlotte is trying to address food deserts

Vinnie Morris grabs a handful of collard greens sold at the festival.
Elvis Menayese
The West Boulevard Neighborhood Coalition provides fresh produce through a community garden to tackle food insecurity in the corridor.

It’s been nearly a decade since a study from Harvard researcher Raj Chetty shocked Charlotte by naming our region 50th out of 50 when it comes to economic mobility.

With Chetty coming back to speak at UNC Charlotte next week, we’re taking a look at some of the issues around economic mobility that Charlotte’s still confronting and what solutions might entail. WFAE is partnering with UNC Charlotte on the event and will livestream Chetty's talk on Tuesday, Nov. 14, starting at 6:15 p.m.

Maurice Black pushed a shopping cart out of a convenience store on West Boulevard and Remount Road. Black stopped to point out the lack of places nearby offering healthy food.

“There’s one, two, three, four restaurants right here in the same little block, on the same little corner, and as far as healthy, I don’t think they’re healthy,” Black said. “There’s fried food; there’s everything but healthy.”

Black is from West Boulevard, in a neighborhood considered a food desert because of a lack of full-service grocery stores. He’s lived in the area for more than 25 years. He said he would like to see a full-service grocery store in his community.

“Yes, I would, I really would because we’re in a neighborhood where we have kids growing up that deserve to have healthy food,” Black said.

Black is homeless. He said he shops at the convenience store daily, and his diet consists of cookies, chips and candy. He said if there were a grocery store in the area, his diet would instead contain vegetables and fruits, which he said would probably help his high blood pressure. Black said the lack of full-service grocery stores in the neighborhood makes it difficult for seniors who can’t drive.

Maurice Black pushes a small shopping cart along Remount Road and West Boulevard.
Elvis Menayese
Maurice Black pushes a small shopping cart along Remount Road at West Boulevard.

“They have no way to get to the store; they have to call cabs, and, you know, cabs in Charlotte are very expensive. There’s no way to get around,” Black said. “You’ll have to literally ask people for rides or pay for a cab. Or you have to get on a bus. And can you imagine older people getting on a bus with bags of groceries? It’s hectic, it’s difficult.”

Black said the money residents would spend to pay for a cab to get groceries could be used for other purposes.

“You can have that $30 to help you last the rest of the month. Your attitude would be a lot better,” Black said. “If I had to spend $30 for nothing when I can go around the corner and have it free, it makes my attitude a whole lot better.”

In 2015, the Charlotte Mecklenburg Food Policy Council highlighted West Boulevard, Brookshire Boulevard between Interstate 85 and Interstate 485, and Albemarle Road, as areas at high risk for food insecurity. All these areas lack full-service grocery stores and require long drives to stores that sell fresh produce. But data the council collects shows there have been some slight improvements since the report. Colleen Hammelman is an associate professor in the Department of Geography and Earth Sciences at UNC Charlotte and served on the Charlotte Mecklenburg Food Policy Council board. She pointed out some of the changes.

“West Boulevard and Brookshire Boulevard still very much show having little to no access to a full-service grocery store,” Hammelman said. “But it appears there’s been a little bit of improvement along Albemarle Road. Not much, but perhaps one store that has opened up and increased access.”

Hammelman said the history of segregation and systemic policies mean certain demographics don’t have access to full-service grocery stores.

“The neighborhoods that are lacking access to a full-service grocery store are not only low income, but they are also neighborhoods of color,” Hammelman said. “So, it's where you're going to find majority Black neighborhoods and where you're going to find majority Hispanic neighborhoods.”

Hammelman said grocery store companies consider factors that put some neighborhoods at a disadvantage.

“What's the density, what’s the spending power of the people who live there, what’s their profile? Do they think they’re going to have enough customers to come through the door to make a profit,” Hammelman said. “And today, those calculations for the West Boulevard corridor do not make it an attractive place for grocery stores to locate, and that’s has been the case for several decades.”

Colleen Hammelman served on the Charlotte Mecklenburg Food Policy Council board.
UNC Charlotte
Colleen Hammelman served on the Charlotte Mecklenburg Food Policy Council board for more than three years.

Hammelman said that not having access to healthy food can hurt a person's ability to climb the socioeconomic ladder.

 “If you’re trying to get a better job, if you are trying to get an education, if you're trying to get all these things that we’ve been looking at that are pathways towards upwards social economic mobility, but you don’t know where your next meal is going to come from, or you haven’t had meals that day, you are much less equipped to be able to achieve those goals,” Hammelman said.

Local historian Michael Moore recalled when West Boulevard had a full-service grocery store. In the 1960s, Moore said, large homebuilders created subdivisions such as Clanton Park and Ponderosa. Moore said these subdivisions were segregated, and only white families were allowed to buy homes in these areas.

“As the area grew, it became more dense, and the percentage of white residents grew. The young Harris Teeter supermarket moved onto West Boulevard and opened a business on West Boulevard in 1961,” Moore said. “So, now you have a larger, denser community that can support a market, and Harris Teeter recognizes that, and they come to town.”

That changed starting in about 1970.

 “Several large apartment complexes were erected, including the two large new public housing authority properties, Dalton Village and Boulevard Homes, and most of the white families who bought into these neighborhoods, they sold out and moved away,” Moore said. “Even though hundreds of middle-class Black families then moved into neighborhoods like Clanton Park and Ponderosa, Harris Teeter chose not to renew its lease and moved out of the neighborhood in 1976.”

Wayne’s Super Market would take Harris Teeter's spot in the corridor. Moore said Wayne’s Super Market offered less selection than bigger chain stores and sold produce and meat that residents considered lower quality. Wayne’s Super Market closed in the corridor at the end of the 1990s.

A “Coming Soon” sign of the expected co-op grocery store is planted off Clanton Road and West Boulevard.
Elvis Menayese
A “Coming Soon” sign of the expected co-op grocery store is planted off Clanton Road and West Boulevard.

Today, there’s a “Coming Soon” sign for a co-op grocery store off Clanton Road and West Boulevard.

Rickey Hall, board chair of the West Boulevard Neighborhood Coalition, said the coalition plans to bring a co-op grocery store into the corridor for several reasons.

“It’s to provide fresh, healthy food and vegetables and grocery amenities; two, to provide good-paying jobs,” Hall said. “Three, it’s to use it as a springboard for greater community involvement and investments — it’s going to be more than a grocery store.”

 Rickey Hall stands near the coalitions community garden off West Boulevard and Clanton Road.
Elvis Menayese
Rickey Hall stands near a community garden off West Boulevard and Clanton Road.

Hall said residents will be able to buy into ownership of the store for a small fee and play a role in changing their community’s trajectory. The city, county and federal governments have contributed about $5 million to support the market’s total cost of $10 million.

“The market is an example of a community-driven solution to create economic mobility and address some of those maladies that are identified by the Chetty study,” Hall said.

Hall said the arrival of the co-op will highlight how residents are able to solve community issues.

“If you’ve got a problem, you’re not looking for others to solve that problem. You put your hands on the wheels or the plow, and you start working to start addressing it from the inside rather than the outside,” Hall said. “And that’s what we’ve done, and this is going to create a source of immense pride for residents in the West Boulevard corridor and our target market area.”

The coalition plans to break ground on the co-op in 2024.

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Elvis Menayese is a Report for America corps member covering issues involving race and equity for WFAE. He previously was a member of the Queens University News Service. Major support for WFAE's Race & Equity Team comes from Novant Health and Wells Fargo.