Soulsville USA struggles with food access

Access to fresh fruits and vegetables doesn’t come easy in Soulsville USA, but there are efforts to change the landscape of this food desert.
There are some 25,000 people who live in the 38106 ZIP code of South Memphis, which includes much of Soulsville USA. And many of those residents don’t have easy access to fresh produce, meats and other groceries.
A Save-A-Lot is on the eastern fringe of the neighborhood along Bellevue Boulevard near McLemore Avenue. And a Kroger sits a few miles to the southwest along South Third Street.
But a neighborhood grocery, one where residents can walk or ride a bike to? Well, it’s complicated.
Yes, Save-A-Lot does sit on the east side of Interstate 240. In theory, it’s reachable by foot. The Kroger stores in Midtown are reachable by city bus, but with a transfer it’s a 45-minute ride. And with refrigerated and frozen goods, particularly in the Memphis summer, it’s not a great option.

When a 26,500-square-foot building was built more than five years ago across McLemore from the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, the plan was for a grocery to occupy that space. It never happened, and Tom Shadyac bought the property at a bankruptcy auction in August.
Today, the residents of Soulsville USA are no closer to having a full-service grocery in the neighborhood. And considering the community is certified a food desert by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, it means access to fresh produce and meats is hard to come by.
A Mid-South Food Bank survey in 2010 reported that 83 percent of its patrons had to choose between buying food and paying utilities. And when many of those people making that choice live in an area where there isn’t easy access to groceries, the health concerns are elevated.
There are glimmers of hope spread around.
Take the South Memphis Farmers Market, which opened in July 2010 at the corner of South Parkway and Mississippi Boulevard, on the southern reach of the Soulsville USA neighborhood. The market was started by a collaborative of South Memphis residents, The Works and the University of Memphis.
Four years later, The Grocer at South Memphis Farmers Market opened as a year-round neighborhood grocery store serving the community, helping fill a gap when the market isn’t open during the winter months.
“It’s not a full-service grocery store, 70,000 feet like a flagship store,” said Curtis Thomas, Deputy Executive Director of The Works, which operates the market and grocery. “But it’s open six days a week, year-round. … It’s not necessarily the selection of Kroger but you can go in and buy what you need for a complete meal. It’s a good interim solution to identify a way to service the community with a full-service grocery.”
In a city that heavily depends on auto transportation, communities such as Soulsville USA where not everyone has access to a car, it’s difficult to get to a grocery. Yes, there are stops for Memphis Area Transit Authority buses in the neighborhood; there’s one in front of the South Memphis Farmers Market, actually.
And while the Kroger store on Third Street at Southgate Shopping Center is 1.3 miles from the farmers market and the future Kroger on Union Avenue that’s under construction is 1.6 miles away, it’s a long bus ride to get to either store.
Thomas said that surveys conducted during the planning process found that either store is a 45-minute bus ride away.
“It’s our job to figure out with the community how to overcome that,” Thomas said. “That’s the work. We’ve been active since the planning process to incentivize grocers to help urban and rural needs.”
Nearby, Talbert Fleming owns Jim and Samella’s House restaurant just to the west of the market. Last year Fleming planted a garden just to the west of his restaurant on Bullington Avenue. In its second year, the garden has herbs and vegetables, including okra, tomatoes, corn, greens, bell peppers, cucumbers and carrots. It’s all free to anyone in the community.
GrowMemphis has provided seeds for Fleming to plant.
“In this community there are so many elderly people,” Fleming said. “The reason we grew the garden is we want them not to be afraid to come out of their house. Some of these houses that are boarded up, the elderly people are afraid to come outside. So we’re going to buy back our neighborhood.”
Fleming’s free neighborhood garden plays a small role in changing the food desert of South Memphis. Part of the worsening problem, Fleming said, is the disappearance of the Easy Way Produce store on North Main Street in Downtown. When that store was open, neighborhood residents found their way to the store to buy fresh produce.
“People who lived in this community were accustomed to the style of Easy Way,” Fleming said. “They love the fresh-cut meats and fresh vegetables Easy Way provided. They loved the cost they got. … By us coming up with the idea of a garden we wanted them to feel comfortable picking those vegetables they need.”
The nearby South Memphis Farmers Market is a start, but only selling fresh produce on Thursdays from May through November still leaves a big gap. Fleming’s garden can help, but it’s just a start, but an important one.
The South Memphis Farmers Market was the first project to come out of the South Memphis Revitalization Action Plan, a resident-led effort to transform South Memphis into a premier urban neighborhood of choice.
“One of the consistent themes throughout the community’s vision was related to food and the lack of grocery store access,” Thomas said. “The market is working. It wasn’t in the initial plan to add a green grocer but there was funding available.”
The South Memphis Farmers Market works to bring cooking skills to the community. When discussing the idea of a market and ultimately the green grocer, the idea about the generational loss of cooking skills kept coming up. There were requests to hold cooking classes, so the Grocer has a 1,200-square-foot teaching kitchen that is available for demonstrations on farmers market days.
In addition, there are long-term classes that cover healthy cooking skills, and menu and budget planning. It’s a two-hour class held once a week for six weeks.
Shadyac’s plans for the Soulsville Town Center are still in the works, but it doesn’t appear a grocery store is part of the plan. Adrian Killebrew has big dreams for a grocery store just to the east of the heart of Soulsville USA, but without the proper funding, dreams are hard to make a reality.
“A grocery is much needed,” he said. “Even in an underprivileged community, you still need good quality grocery stores. This community is in desperate need of a real grocery store. You can’t tell me it can’t be supported. Everybody’s got to eat. If I had enough money or if I could get a group together to establish a grocery store in this area I surely would do it.”
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Read more articles by Lance Wiedower.

Lance is a veteran journalist with more than 16 years of experience in newsrooms in the Memphis area as a reporter and editor, including most recently as managing editor of The Daily News. He regularly contributes to The Daily News, including a biweekly travel column, The Daily Traveler.