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Bill Pike column: Buying groceries in Richmond
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Food Insecurity

Bill Pike column: Buying groceries in Richmond

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I can’t tell you why, but grocery stores intrigue me. I always read with interest the annual market share report for grocery stores in the Richmond area.

While I know very little about operating a grocery store, I am curious about the strategic planning needed to sustain a store.

And I’ll be honest with you, I struggle with how Food World reports its findings. As a consumer, I do not consider Wawa, CVS, Walgreens, Target and 7-Eleven grocery stores.

Within easy driving distance of our home are eight grocery stores. That is not the case for many Richmonders who live in food deserts — areas with no grocery store. For these consumers, a Wawa might be their only food access.

When I read the Food World survey, I want to know: Where are Aldi, Lidl, Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, Fresh Market, Tom Leonard’s, Ellwood Thompson’s and Libbie Market? Also, where are the warehouse stores: BJ’s, Costco, Sam’s Club?

My guess is Food World researchers would tell me the market share for these stores is minuscule or that their management will not release sales data.

As a consumer, I have many questions about grocery stores.

But, I constantly keep coming back to this one — why in Carytown do we have four grocery stores within easy walking distance of each other, while sections of the Richmond area are food deserts?

Data miners for the grocery store chains have done their homework. Grocery stores are built in locations where consumers have the income to sustain these stores.

No matter the location, managing a grocery store is not an easy task. Financially, it’s risky. Even with the risks, eight stores near our home and the four in Carytown took the gamble on those locations — why?

Simple — money and safety.

I wonder what we might learn about our current grocery war leaders if we changed the reporting criteria?

How about if the first piece for determining market share was based upon how much a grocer gives back to the community during the course of a year? This could be measured by tracking food donations or financial support to local food nonprofits.

Maybe the second data measurement is to audit the grocer’s hiring and leadership development data for people of color. How are their practices for hiring impoverished youth, or adults re-entering the workforce from incarceration?

A third category might track the market share impact that school systems, houses of worship and food banks have in reducing food insecurity.

Another possible grouping would assess how grocers educate their shoppers. Are customers offered insights on how to make better economical and nutritional purchases?

While it would be interesting to learn how our leaders stack up in these assessments, I don’t believe grocers would be eager to report this data.

My time left on Earth is moving fast. How might I use my remaining days to impact food deserts and food insecurity?

American writer James Thurber once wrote: “There is no safety in numbers or anything else.”

But, in the case of numbers, I ask — what might happen if the market share leaders pooled their financial and human resources to open five co-op grocery stores in Richmond’s food deserts over the next five years?

Or, how might city and county leaders work with the owners of vacant lots and the agricultural experts at Virginia State University to turn these empty lots into thriving community gardens?

Could these community gardens include kitchens for teaching food nutrition and food preparation, including opportunities to preserve harvested vegetables via canning/freezing?

During the pandemic, I learned quite a bit about food insecurity in Richmond. Our church worked with three local food pantries to help keep their shelves stocked. I read weekly reports or had conversations with pantry leaders about the heartfelt needs in their communities.

A year from now, the market shares from our grocery store wars again will be reported. Percentage points will rise or fall. But, in all of that data will be a buried constant — those in our own backyards who are food insecure.

In the Bible, the following scripture is written: “There will always be poor people in the land.”

Richmond has lots of food knowledge and talent. Why can’t we use our community expertise to counter the food implications in that Bible verse?

How do we confront our shrugging shoulders like the lyrics from a Bruce Hornsby song: “That’s just the way it is, some things will never change.”

However, Hornsby counters that resigned sentiment with a challenge: “Ah, but don’t you believe them.”

Richmond community, market share in grocery store wars isn’t important. No, what is important is our capacity to believe we can eliminate food deserts and food insecurity.

My clock is ticking. I need to get busy. How about you?

Bill Pike is director of operations at Trinity United Methodist Church. Contact him at: wapike1@gmail.com

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