October 6, 2022

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Healthy food access is key to neighborhood revival

18 min read


By Mariama Jallow

David West, a retired juvenile court counselor for the state of North Carolina, grew up in the Boston-Thurmond neighborhood in Winston-Salem, a predominantly Black community that has seen many changes over the past century.

Until the early 1990s, it was a vibrant neighborhood filled with Black Americans in a variety of tax brackets. There were fresh food markets at most every corner and everyone seemed to know everyone in the community, according to West, a 68-year-old neighborhood advocate who willingly offers a quick history lesson.

Today, few residents there know their neighbors, according to West.

From that discussion about bygone days emerges a more universal story about how housing policies and urban planning can create “food deserts,” areas without easy access to fresh, healthy foods. Some argue food deserts are formed under established systems of food apartheid that mainly affect communities of color. Now, advocates such as West and other neighborhood groups are working to improve access to food and create healthier communities. 

A glimpse into the past 

“I grew up during segregation and food accessibility was great because we had corner stores,” West said. “I mean, fresh food, fresh meats, fresh produce, canned goods, juices, things of that nature. And they never sold alcohol. They were practically at each corner of the neighborhood. Now, I can’t even go to a store within a quarter mile of my house.”

“That’s how our neighborhoods were made up, not just in Boston-Thurmond but in other predominantly African American communities back in the day,” West added.

Boston-Thurmond, one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods, is located just north of the recently revitalized downtown, sandwiched between Wake Forest University and Innovation Quarter, a research park that could one day include housing and retail.

A century ago, the neighborhood was a draw for workers from Winston-Salem’s tobacco and textile factories. Boston-Thurmond flourished for many years before falling into disrepair.

In the 1960s, University Parkway, a multi-lane expressway connecting the downtown to the northern reaches of the city, was built right through the neighborhood.

The corner stores that had been so essential started disappearing in the 1960s and ’70s. Supermarkets did not rise up in the neighborhood in their absence.

“We had a lot of Black ownership of these stores, there were white people who owned stores as well but now we have none,” West said.

Striving for a better future

Over time, the neighborhood became more cut off from the city center and its amenities, making it a pocket of poverty now subject to revitalization efforts. Part of any such effort, advocates say, should include attempts to alleviate intergenerational poverty through a multi-pronged approach that also focuses on community health.

Boston-Thurmond continues to be a melting pot. Driving down one street you may see a shotgun-style house that hasn’t been worked on since the 1960s or a newly renovated two-story home with a garden filled with flowers representing every shade of the rainbow. Children ride their bikes along neighborhood streets, vigilantly steering clear of University Parkway, their voices lifting optimism and hope for a neighborhood at a crossroads.

The yard of the month project organized by Boston-Thurmond United, a neighborhood improvement group, highlights the contrasts, showing the beautifully kept yards in the neighborhood while also exposing some of the challenges that such a community faces.

There are empty plots of land. Some used to be gas stations which contaminated the soil and made them difficult to build new structures on. Others are being used to create flourishing tracts, such as the plot on which community organizers have created a budding hydroponic garden that provides fresh fruit and vegetables to all Boston-Thurmond residents. 

Community garden in the Boson-Thurmond neighborhood. Photo credit: Mariama Jallow

Understanding food apartheids 

In the early 1990s the term “food desert” was created to describe poor access to healthy and affordable food in neighborhoods and communities.

The Natural Resources Defense Council suggests that “food deserts” have become a common term to describe low-income communities — often communities of color — where access to healthy and affordable food is limited or where there are no grocery stores.

Over the years, though, the term food desert has come under scrutiny because the word “desert” suggests that these disparities are naturally occurring. However, environmental justice advocates argue that urban planning, redlining, unequal access to health care, education and economic opportunity play a large role in the health and wealth of a community.

In 2018, Karen Washington, an urban farmer and community activist in New York, coined the term “food apartheid” to illustrate how economic inequality and systemic racism thrive within our food distribution systems. Washington also highlighted how complex it can be to solve the problem. 

Simply adding a grocery store to a low-income neighborhood does not mean the residents there now have access to affordable and healthy foods, she said. Nor does it mean, the health disparities that she saw disproportionately among people of color when she worked as a physical therapist — diabetes, hypertension and obesity — would disappear overnight.

The daily difficulties 

West and others working to restore the health of Boston-Thurmond know that an integrated approach is necessary.

A grocery shopping trip for some is not as easy as grabbing the car keys and making a quick run to get fresh fruits, vegetables, meat or a gallon of milk.

“Right now, I would say about 65 percent of the people in the neighborhood have vehicles and the rest rely on public transportation,” West said. “Public transportation is available but it is slow, you know, you might go to the store and have to wait another hour to get back home. That can be frustrating to our residents.”

Gregory Hairston, a retiree who worked at Winston-Salem State University, grew up in the Boston-Thurmond neighborhood and still has personal relationships with many of the residents and understands the impact that food apartheid can have on daily life.

“When residents don’t have reliable access to transportation, when they do go to the supermarket they shop in bulk and that leads to poor food choices sometimes because you go for what’s convenient,” Hairston said. “Or getting food at a fast-food chain because it’s on the way home or the only food source in the neighborhood.” 

The Boston-Thurmond community, one of Winston-Salem’s oldest neighborhoods, is at a crossroads. Photo credit: Mariama Jallow

Although he doesn’t live in the neighborhood now, Hairston is the Community Partnerships and Engagement Manager for Boston-Thurmond United and remains actively involved in his former neighborhood. His family invested in his childhood home by finishing the basement, adding a room, bathroom and screened-in porch with a built-in grill. He remembers having cookouts throughout the year. The neighborhood and the health of the community are important to him.

Unfortunately, food delivery services are not an easy fix to the lack of accessible grocery stores either, Hairston said. Restaurants that deliver to the neighborhood don’t always have the healthiest menu options and some places won’t come to Boston-Thurmond. 

“The first obvious solution would be markets in the community, even a small market that people can walk to would be helpful,” Hairston said. “Something that doesn’t require using a car because when you’re on a limited income you have to be careful how many places you have to drive to that provide high quality food.” 

Hairston picked up on a theme that Washington mentioned.

Grocery stores have metrics they use when considering store locations. They look at the number of households in an area, as well as the average household income, Hairston said. In East Winston-Salem — a predominantly black area in the city — there is a Food Lion but there isn’t a supermarket in the Boston-Thurmond neighborhood. 

“You do see some change in gentrified areas, for example there’s been a consistent and significant increase in homeownership in downtown Winston-Salem yet they still don’t have a grocery store,” Hairston said. “That community is high income, all home homeowners in the townhomes or condo owners. However, as of now Boston-Thurmond is not experiencing gentrification.”

Trees and natural spaces

The intersection between building a healthy environment in communities of color and tackling systemic racism is something that Rev. Willard Bass has spent a lot of time studying. His organization, The Freedom Tree Institute for Dismantling Racism (IDR) in Winston-Salem, holds a monthly event called anti-racist learning circles which provides a safe space where people can get together and talk about their experiences and struggles surrounding race and racism.    

“How we deal with environments that we live in is key to whether we have justice or not,” Bass said. “I primarily work with organizations to help them transform communities — with a lot of historical ties — that have perpetuated injustice, and environmental injustice. I help our environments to become more inclusive and accessible.”

Bass is particularly passionate about the inclusion of trees and natural spaces in communities, which he said are often lacking in underserved communities.  

“Trees and natural spaces are very important for people’s health,” he added. “We want to have natural spaces and trees around all communities and neighborhoods because it hasn’t been done in the past.” 

Trees also provide a much-needed break from the heat. An investigative series by the Los Angeles Times on extreme heat stated that on a typical summer day in L.A, the average temperature in low-income neighborhoods is almost six degrees higher than in wealthy neighborhoods. As a result, many people die from heat-related illnesses. Trees play a large role in those outcomes, according to the series. Wealthier neighborhoods have more canopies which provide more shade and protection.  

“Now, the big thing is redistricting,” Bass said. “Our voting districts and the redistricting process, is something important in converting legislative bodies, and I think it’s time for us to do the right thing. Don’t just redraw maps based on power, redraw maps to provide low-income communities more access.”

Working to fill the gaps 

During her time at the state legislature, Rep. Yvonne Lewis Holley (D-Raleigh) was one of the lawmakers bent on improving communities of color. She’s done a lot of work surrounding food apartheids in her district.

“When I first went into the General Assembly, we lost two grocery stores in my district and discovered there was a food desert,” Holley said, who served from 2013-2021. “I tried to recruit grocery stores and found out about the low profit margin. Some of the reasons they had for not coming into low-income neighborhoods were valid, some of the reasons were not.”

From there, Holley and her team looked at other ways to get food in her district, which included the southeast portion of downtown Raleigh and many historically Black neighborhoods. They focused on corner stores. Such businesses would provide nutritional foods within walking distance for her constituents. Though the idea had merit, the program was terribly underfunded, Holley said. 

“You realize that food, housing, all of that goes hand in hand,” Holley said recently. “It’s all about just affordable living in general. If you have a place to sleep, you worry about your meal. If you have a meal and you may have no place to sleep. This is a bad problem all the way around.”

In many of these communities, Holley added, the main source of food is usually fast food or stores that sell cigarettes or other unhealthy items. 

“Wake County is being gentrified so fast that grocery stores are coming to some of these areas, not because there’s a need over there, but because the area is changing,” Holley said. “So what we’re trying to do is, put in housing, with corridors for transportation and access to nutrient-rich foods, where people can have a stable bus route or live near grocery stores.”

Winston-Salem community organizers are trying to help Boston-Thurmond rebuild some of the same kinds of infrastructure — fundamental foundations that over time can improve the wealth and health of a community.

A factory located in the Boston-Thurmond community. Photo credit: Mariama Jallow

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In Winston-Salem, healthy food access is key to neighborhood revival

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