CLINGMAN: The Truth About Food Deserts

People wait in line for eggs provided by the Capital Area Food Bank on May 3. (Demetrious McKinney/The Washington Informer)
People wait in line for eggs provided by the Capital Area Food Bank on May 3. (Demetrious McKinney/The Washington Informer)

Why do we have food deserts? One reason is that we have deserted our own stores. Instead of taking care of ourselves, we complain about stores owned by someone else. We petition our politicians for a grocery store or seek private companies to open stores where we live, but seldom do we open stores ourselves. Even when blacks do open new supermarkets we do not support them, and they eventually are forced to close. Think I’m wrong? Keep reading.

At the turn of the last century (1900) black people began to form food co-ops and other collective purchasing programs to feed themselves and to leverage lower prices for black consumers. Two of the first grocery co-ops were started in St. Louis and Chicago by B. G. Shaw and Robert Jackson, respectively, in 1919.

The most notable co-op was the Colored Merchants’ Association (CMA), founded by A.C. Brown in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1923. With assistance from the National Negro Business League, under the leadership of Albon Holsey, the CMA became a national organization that encouraged black grocers to unite. In 1936, Holsey said the CMA “began to lose the confidence of the black consumer.”

Black economist Abram Harris said, “Members always found it difficult to sell CMA brands. The Negro, like the white consumer, is habituated to the popular brands carried by the chains.”

Desertion of black stores by black consumers led to market opportunities for outsiders to take full advantage of the black food dollar. We became dependent upon others, and now we even request their presence in our neighborhoods. No better picture of that reality than Singletary’s Supermarket in Columbus, Ohio in the mid-1980s. I wrote many articles about Singletary’s and even spent time there doing a product sampling program. Singletary’s was a brand new business at that time — clean, well-stocked, and more convenient to blacks in the Mt. Vernon neighborhood than other grocery stores.

Joel Kotkin, author of “Tribes,” wrote: “In Columbus, Ohio…Singletary Plaza Mart, the nation’s largest Black-owned ‘superstore,’ went out of business … due to a lack of community patronage. Although Blacks in Columbus spend $2.5 million each week on food, they couldn’t be convinced to spend less than a tenth of it, or $200,000, to keep Singletary afloat.”

In 1995, in Lakeland, Florida, an interdenominational group of black ministers took their church members shopping. A fledgling black-owned grocery store was not doing very well in the community, so the ministers got together to help. The ministers took 150 people to the store, called Fresh Supermarket Foods. After two hours, the shoppers had spent $4,000, according to the owner, Frank Jackson.

Paul Sanders, pastor of Greater St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church, said, “At stake is getting more blacks to support [one another]. We talk about power. But if we don’t have some businesses or some money, we can talk about power all we want and it won’t come. … If the store does not succeed, it will be because of a lack of community support.”

Three other recent examples include Fresh Market supermarket in nearly 100 percent black Southside Chicago. Owner Karriem Beyah, whose store was included in Maggie and John Anderson’s “Empowerment Experiment,” agreed that the awareness and enthusiasm the Andersons created was important, but Beyah added that his business may have suffered from being highlighted as an enterprise owned by an African-American. (He closed the store in August 2009.)

“If you’re under the radar, then maybe you won’t get that belief from customers that the other guy’s ice is colder than yours,” he said, adding, “I’m not giving up.”

Beyah plans to open a new store this year.

Second is the 2014 closing of the last Calhoun’s Supermarket in Montgomery, Alabama, after losing money for “three or four years,” according to owner Greg Calhoun, who made history as the first African-American in the South to own a supermarket. At one point, Calhoun had seven stores alone in Montgomery, a majority black city.

ShaKenya Calhoun cried as she closed the doors one final time.

“The market has just been oversaturated with grocery stores,” she said. “With the lack of sales, there’s not an economic impact for us to be in business.”

Third, there’s the much-ballyhooed Sterling Farms’ grocery store in New Orleans, co-owned by actor Wendell Pierce, who wanted to bring healthy food to underserved communities. That store closed one year after opening. It drew national media attention when it opened, including a visit from Michelle Obama, who was touting her Fresh Food Initiative to bring healthy grocery options to so-called “food deserts.”

What will it take for us to feed ourselves? We have the money, we just lack the mindset. History will not treat us kindly if we fail to act appropriately.

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