Supermarket Blackout

The lack of major food retailers is devastating African American communities. It's time to use your dollars to fill the gap.

Like some African Americans, Zelda Owens turned to buses, subways, taxis or car pooling to get to a quality supermarket in New York City. "The Associateds or C-Town Supermarkets in this area don’t offer variety. So, I often shopped at D’Agostino’s in downtown Manhattan to get the products I wanted," admits the 32-year-old Harlem native. According to Owens, the lack of quality grocery stores introduces a much bigger issue: Harlem residents lack healthy food choices as well as other basic services, such as print shops, dry cleaners, newspaper stands, florists and banks with ATMs. "It seems like corporations feel that it’s not glamorous or sexy to have a business in a predominantly black neighborhood. I wanted to change that," says Owens. So, she called her associates at the New York State Black Republican Council to announce her plans to run for the state Senate. Although she didn’t win, she got over 1,800 votes. "And that was with no picture, name recognition or television commercials," she states.

Pressure from residents like Owens and others was responsible for a new Pathmark supermarket being built on the east side of Harlem between Lexington and Third avenues. While the supermarket took more than 10 years to complete due to political conflicts, financing issues and some local opposition, the superstore has a good selection of products at fair prices. But Owens thinks there is room for more chains, since the store only has one location in the Harlem area. "In this neighborhood, you don’t have access to the variety you get in Midtown and other residential areas," she insists. "We also deserve options."

Generally, major supermarket chains steer clear of African American communities because they underestimate the community’s potential spending power and overestimate the risks. This deficiency in black neighborhoods results in fewer employment opportunities, fewer competitively priced product choices and little access to philanthropic contributions. And the problem isn’t just restricted to poor inner-city communities. Even some African Americans in the more affluent neighborhoods have to take a hike when it’s time to go food shopping. But you can secure more quality grocers with better products and services in your neighborhood by taking an active stance. Here’s how you can fill the gap.

FERRETING OUT THE FALLACIES
The majority of supermarkets are located in suburban areas that are still predominantly white. Urban Supermarkets, a report issued by the Food Marketing Institute (FMI), cites numerous reasons why the majority of the major chains refuse to put facilities in African American communities. One claim is that developers have difficulty acquiring land in urban areas. Another is that development costs, such as building demolition, ground leveling and cleanup, can be higher in urban areas than in suburban locations.

"The land issue is somewhat realistic," admits Jonathan "Johnny" Johnson, president and CEO of Community Pride Food Stores (No. 55 on the be industrial/service 100 list) in Richmond, Virginia. But he also says the major supermarket chains need to be a little more creative

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