Filling the desert: Columbia mayor candidates grapple with food insecurities in the city

·3 min read

Some Columbia residents take for granted the nearby access they have to fresh food and grocery stores.

But in recent years, swaths of the city have struggled with steady access to major grocery stores and fresh food options. A lower-income urban area without a grocery store or fresh food market within about a 1-mile radius is considered to be a food desert.

Also referred to by some as low access food areas, they have particularly been an issue in largely African American areas of north Columbia, including much of the North Main Street and Monticello Road corridors and some areas surrounding Two Notch Road and Harden Street.

While a number of neighborhood groups, nonprofits and food justice initiatives have worked to fill the gaps, it has remained a consistent problem in the capital city. The four candidates for mayor — Moe Baddourah, Tameika Isaac Devine, Sam Johnson and Daniel Rickenmann were asked to consider the issue during a recent virtual forum hosted by The State.

Specifically, Eau Claire High School senior Blonzine Louis, one of several Richland District One students who asked questions during the debate, quizzed the hopefuls about what they would do to add grocery stores and restaurants in the North Main Street and Monticello Road areas.

Baddourah, who is a former District 3 Columbia City Councilman and a restaurateur, floated the idea of tax incentives specifically to try to lure grocery stores to the areas where they are needed.

He also said the city should work with mobile grocery providers, which could perhaps set up in neighborhoods in buses or trailers on a scheduled basis, to help fill fresh grocery gaps.

“The city should provide the land for a grocery store on wheels, anywhere that is in a food desert, to (entice) grocery stores on wheels to come and service the community,” Baddourah said.

Rickenmann, who is a Columbia City Councilman in District 4 and works in renewable energy development, said he would make it a priority to bring grocery stores and restaurants to areas that need them. He said those efforts could be aided by addressing high sewer expansion fees and eliminating other permitting hurdles for businesses.

He also said Columbia should look for federal grants to help bolster areas that lack grocery stores.

“We need to take advantage of the Choice Neighborhood grants and leverage it so that we can build buildings and get these small neighborhood grocery stores and services,” Rickenmann said. “Right now, asking somebody to take a bus all the way across town to lug groceries back (to their home) is not fair.”

Devine, who has been an at-large city councilwoman for two decades, remembered visiting her grandparents in the Greenview neighborhood when she was a child and walking to a neighborhood grocery store. She said the city needs to be intentional about investments that create pathways for smaller grocers, not necessarily just chain outlets, to set up shop in neighborhoods where they are needed.

“There are so many opportunities to bring back community grocery stores,” Devine said. “As mayor, I think addressing economic opportunity and investing in communities that have been disinvested in is very important. Some creative ideas are looking at creating back those models where you have independent grocery stores and community grocery stores.”

Johnson pitched the idea of what he calls economic overlay districts, which would offer incentives for businesses to set up shop in specifically designated areas of the city that disproportionately have not seen robust economic growth.

“With something like economic overlay districts, it showcases and makes sure that some of the challenges that we have, some of the missing links we have in our community like grocery stores and pharmacies, that we are able to incentivize them here in Columbia,” Johnson said.

Johnson also said he thinks the food co-op concept — where the community would have ownership in a grocery store — should be explored.

To watch The State’s whole mayoral forum, click here.

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