The poorest residents of Chattanooga face the highest prices at their neighborhood food stores, according to an analysis of food prices and grocery store access in Chattanooga.
With few nearby grocery stores, residents of low-income neighborhoods such as East Chattanooga and Highland Park often have to do their food shopping at corner stores and convenience stores, where perishable items such as vegetables and meats are significantly more expensive, according to the Ochs Center for Metropolitan Studies report released today.
The situation amounts to a kind of "food tax" on the population least able to afford it and creates a barrier to accessing healthy, nutritious foods, the researchers say.
"The poor are paying more, whether it's in higher prices (at corner stores) or in the cost of transportation" to a supermarket, said David Eichenthal, president and CEO of the Ochs Center, which conducts policy research and data analysis.
GROCERY STORE DESERTS
Number of grocery stores per 10,000 population (1.0 is the recommended level for adequate access):
* Bushtown/Highland Park (pop. 7,776): 0
* East Chattanooga (pop. 8,117): 0
* South Chattanooga (pop. 12,674): 0.79
* Downtown (pop. 6,960): 1.44
* East Ridge (pop. 20,640): 1.94
* Lookout Valley/Lookout Mountain (pop. 7,209): 4.16
* Hixson (pop. 12,329): 5.68
Source: "Food Access and Price," Ochs Center for Metropolitan Studies report
Researchers at the Ochs Center came up with a sample grocery list that included milk, bread, meat and fruits and compared the prices at corner stores and supermarkets.
Across all neighborhoods, fresh fruits and vegetables on average cost 41 percent more in corner stores than grocery stores, and milk and cheese were 29 percent higher, the researchers found.
At the corner stores, the average total cost of all items on the grocery list was $34.12, compared to $23.91 if the items were purchased at a grocery store.
"That's a $10 difference for the people who are making $12,000 a year," said John Bilderback, program manager for Step One, the anti-obesity program of the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department.
In East Chattanooga, where there are no grocery stores, just 6 percent of residents live within a mile of a grocery, compared to 55 percent in Hixson, where there are seven grocery stores, he said.
The price differences are no surprise to East Chattanooga community advocate and resident Mildred Moreland.
"It was just good to see it in numbers," said Mrs. Moreland, who is chairwoman of the health committee of the East Side Task Force. She's lived in East Chattanooga for 40 years and has seen the neighborhood decline, she said.
"We had several large grocery stores that have moved out of the area. It's just been a change over a period of years," she said.
Researchers say today's report and an earlier study by the Ochs Center describe a very real access issue for some populations in Chattanooga. The report also presents potential solutions.
An August study by the Ochs Center showed that, in the five areas of Chattanooga with the highest food stamp enrollment, almost 90 percent of the stores that accepted food stamps are gas stations and convenience stores.
But most participants in the program were making the effort to get to a grocery store miles away to redeem their food stamps at a supermarket, said Lori Quillen, policy analyst at the Ochs Center and author of both studies.
The results show there is demand for a grocery store in poor neighborhoods, which could be used to induce a store to locate there, she said.
Massive investments in the Southside area show that community revitalization efforts can pave the way for new services, such as a market, coming to the city of Chattanooga, said local developer Gavin Thomas.
Mr. Thomas and fellow Southside resident Eric Cummings plan to open a full-service grocery store on the corner of Main and Long streets by next fall. The locally owned and operated store, Enzo's Market, will serve a growing area that is basically a "grocery desert," Mr. Thomas said.
"We're completely underserved. Most of the new grocery stores that have been built are out on the edge of our urban area," he said.
Mrs. Moreland agreed that improvements in areas such as crime rates in East Chattanooga would probably have to come before a grocery store would open there.
"We're trying as much as we can to revitalize the area and to bring back single-family homes and make the community an area where people would want to live in again," she said.
In other cities, grants or public funding help corner stores acquire larger refrigerator spaces so they can stock a larger supply of perishable foods and perhaps then offer lower prices, Mr. Bilderback said.
Convenience stores must price perishable items such as meats a bit higher than grocery stores since the smaller shops carry fewer of those staple items, said Vijay Chaudhari, who owns nine Kanku's convenience stores in Chattanooga.
Grocery stores can buy products such as vegetables and meats in bulk since that's where most customers go to buy those items, he said.
"We don't sell that much meat. We're more like the candies, gum, Coke," he said.