Healthy food access: A community’s effort to improve health

This is a blog series focused on how the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation approaches food access work. You will hear from our partners who work each day to remove barriers for low-income families who do not have easy access to healthy and nutritious foods in their neighborhoods. You can read the whole series here.

This post is co-written by Shelia Byrd of HOPE Enterprise Corporation, and Kamaryn Norris of The Food Trust. HOPE’s mission is to strengthen communities, build assets and improve lives in economically distressed areas of the Mid-South United States by providing access to high quality financial products and related services. The Food Trust’s mission is to ensure that everyone has access to affordable, nutritious food and information to make healthy decisions.

Ruby Wilson had shopped at the Kroger store on Terry Road for years. The store provided residents of South Jackson, Mississippi, a place to purchase fresh produce and pick up prescriptions from an in-house pharmacy. Standing at over 50,000 square feet, the store was the community’s retail anchor in an already struggling area that experienced shuttered stores, closed restaurants, and dilapidated apartments.

But in early 2015, the Kroger closed its doors after 24 years of operation – and Ms. Wilson lost the only place in her neighborhood to buy fresh food for her family.

“The closure just about killed our community’s spirit. The store had been here so long,” she said. “It felt like South Jackson was dying.”

Domino Effect

The store’s closing was a blow not only to the residents, but also to local political and community leaders. Its presence, in a way, had represented the possibilities for South Jackson – a thriving business is necessary to attract more investment and support the other retailers in the community.

Not long after the Kroger’s closing, two other nearby businesses folded.  The next closest full-service grocery store was more than a mile away—an unrealistic option in an area where many families do not have access to a vehicle, and in a city with a limited public transportation system.

Elected officials and grassroots organizations, particularly Working Together Jackson, held rallies – first, to call on Kroger to reconsider, and later, to foster a spirit of hope among those living and working in the area. Due to high up-front costs of opening a new grocery store, coupled with the relatively low-profit margins in the grocery industry, the challenge of securing another grocer to take over the space was substantial. Thus, the city of Jackson began to look within the community for solutions.

Longtime Jackson grocer Greg Price approached HOPE about financing a remodel for his existing store on Capitol Street in early 2016. Price had three decades of experience in grocery retail and understood the relationship between a grocery store and the community it serves—each was a lifeline for the other.

Price understood that access to healthy food options influenced his customers’ eating behaviors. And he knew the importance of access to healthy food options in the capital city of a state that ranks first in the nation for diabetes prevalence and has the nation’s third-highest rate of adult obesity.

After reviewing Price’s paperwork, Ray Williams, HOPE’s vice president for Commercial Lending, had an idea. Instead of making a sizable investment in a leased building, Price and his brother and business partner, Chester Price, could purchase the now vacant Kroger store building.  Williams knew HOPE could support the project for two reasons: Greg Price’s track record in grocery retail and the evident community buy-in.

Getting It Done

But a project of this size could only be made possible through a financing program structured like the Mid-South Healthy Food Initiative (MSHFI), a program co-managed by HOPE and The Food Trust. Having already worked together to lead New Orleans’ Fresh Food Retailer Initiative since 2011, the organizations knew that food access solutions required a collaborative approach.

While HOPE further analyzed the store’s prospects for financial sustainability, The Food Trust performed an in-depth analysis of the project’s ability to advance MSHFI’s goal of increasing access to healthy food in underserved communities. It was clear that the success of this grocery store would have an enormous impact on a community in need. The partners believed that the retail experience the Price Brothers had, combined with demonstrated community support, made the project a great fit.

The Price brothers couldn’t begin the work fast enough to bring this community staple back to the people of South Jackson.

On a windy morning in May 2017, Greg and Chester Price were joined by members of the local Chamber of Commerce, City Council, HOPE and South Jackson residents for the new Jackson Cash & Carry Fresh Food Market ribbon cutting ceremony.

At the event, Greg Price acknowledged the store’s opening was only possible through support from HOPE, other funders and the residents the store will serve. “Very few other banks would have even listened to us or considered to give us the opportunity to do this,” he said.

City Councilman DeKeither Stamps likened the ribbon-cutting to a step toward rebuilding Jackson. “When people go all in, we must back their play,” Stamps said. “We cannot afford for the Price [brothers] to fail.”

Along with Jackson Cash & Carry, HOPE has now financed a total of 10 fresh food projects in the Mid-South, one of the most impoverished regions in the U.S. Through MSHFI, HOPE has developed or rehabilitated more than 158,000 square feet of healthy food retail space, created 447 permanent jobs and provided more than 106,000 residents with improved access to healthy food.

A Step Towards Healthy Food Access

Six months since its opening, the Price brothers have begun work on a long-term strategy that incorporates the reopening of the store pharmacy and leasing space to a physician.

Along with Jackson Cash & Carry, HOPE has now financed a total of 10 fresh food projects in the Mid-South, one of the most impoverished regions in the U.S. Through MSHFI, HOPE has developed or rehabilitated more than 158,000 square feet of healthy food retail space, created 447 permanent jobs and provided more than 106,000 residents with improved access to healthy food.

These kinds of projects do not materialize without the precise alignment of entrepreneurs, flexible financing structures, funders and the community. The collaboration between HOPE, The Food Trust, and the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation is a replicable model that is proven to make a difference in increasing healthy food access in the United States.

The story of Jackson Cash & Carry is far from complete. But this important step forward means Ruby Wilson is now able to access healthy, affordable foods for herself and her family, a basic necessity that is too often not a reality in lower-income communities across the country.

If you are interested in more information or want to apply for financing from the Mid-South Healthy Food Initiative, please click HERE.

Kamaryn Norris is the Project Coordinator, National Campaign for Healthy Food Access at The Food Trust, advocating on the local, state, and federal level for grocery store development across the country in areas that lack access to healthy foods.

Shelia Byrd became the Vice President of Strategic Communications at HOPE after working for Jackson State University and the City of Jackson Mayor’s Office. She is also a past board member of Keep Jackson Beautiful and the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Mississippi Delta.