Grocery shopping gets complicated for Vine neighborhood

When a tree fell on Mike Nelson's Jeep a few years ago, the PhD student at WMU decided it was time to trade in his wheels for walking shoes. After all, as a student on limited income, walking and occasional bus rides save him a lot of money. Plus, living in the Vine neighborhood offers him walkable access not only to the University, but to downtown and all of the other necessities. Until recently, that is.

When Harding's Market closed its doors in February due to an abrupt buy-out deal, in which the developer and future plans for the space have yet to be announced, Mike, and thousands of Vine residents lost their only neighborhood full-service grocer.

Admittedly, Harding's wasn't Mike's only food source. He frequents the Food Co-op and the Farmers Markets, but Harding's was his staple for meat, produce, and dry goods. He'd hoof it down to the store from his home in the Vine about once or twice per week looking for sales. Mike says that Harding's had sales throughout the store, but the good sales were in the meat department. He watched for the twice a year sales – a buy-two-get-three-free sale. He'd stock up on “bacon, chicken, pork chops, whatever was available, and freeze most of it.” Mike concedes that the meat was not the quality he prefers – organic and free range – but Harding's offered a sustainable way to prepare and eat on the income that he has available.

Since the store's closing, Mike has begun shopping at the Park Street Market, over on the North Side. He says because of his proximity within the Vine Neighborhood, it's about a five minute longer walk than Harding's was. It's also smaller and the food options are more limited. He acknowledges, though, that if one lives on the other end of Vine, the Park Street Market isn't a reasonable hike. For the south side of Vine, the closest major grocery store is Meijer on Westnedge, “which is a hell of a commute on foot.” And believe him, he's done it.

But relying on another neighborhood's grocer holds not only distance limitations, it's also not readily accessible. Matt Milcarek is the Construction Manager at Kalamazoo Neighborhood Housing Services. He was formerly the Neighborhood Development Coordinator for the Vine Neighborhood Association, and still sits as the Vice Chair of the Neighborhood's Board of Directors. Micarek notes that not only is the Park Street Market further away, it also sits on the other side of (two) three- to four-lane highways and a set of railroad tracks. Simply put, the route is not pedestrian-friendly.

Shortly following the announcement of the Harding's Market closure, concern sprouted in the Vine Neighborhood that their neighborhood would now become what the USDA refers to as a “Food Desert.” A Facebook group, called, “No Food Desert in the Vine” was set up to draw attention to the issue. The USDA defines a food desert as “a 'low-access community,' and at least 500 people or at least 33 percent of the census tract's population must reside more than one mile from a supermarket or large grocery store. Milcarek used GIS mapping skills to confirm that the census tract that makes up the majority of the Vine Neighborhood is now technically considered a food desert.

Micarek says that food desert metrics can be arbitrary because neighborhoods don't always line up with census tracts. For instance, the Park Street Market is within the one mile radius of some residents in the Vine Neighborhood, but because of the dangerous route for pedestrians, that market actually feels much father away, and is certainly not as accessible to those without access to vehicles.

But, even those on the southern end of Vine face similar accessibility issues that can't be captured in the Food Desert Metrics.

Milcarek notes that: 
To the south of the newly created food desert area, residents on foot will also face obstacles getting to "close by" grocery stores due to the physical layout of our city streets. Only three streets cut across Portage Creek and the EPA PCB dumpsite from Southside/Westnedge Hill into Edison, where the (Town and Country) market is located.

"So the 'close proximity' to this market might be a lot less close when you look at how you actually have to get there. Many of these corridors are surrounded by vacant brownfield land and some residents might have safety concerns walking through these areas. ….Traveling from Vine/Southside/Westnedge Hill to Harding's was different. We had the traditional grid pattern and virtually every street connected to the main arteries that led to Harding's. It was a truly ideal location for a grocery store.”

Laurie Atwater agrees. She's a Vine Resident who lives in Open Door's Cooper Apartments. Laurie is on disability and relied heavily on Harding's prior to the closure. She'd take the bus from her apartment down to Harding's – only a five minute ride. She had her trip down to a science, and taking two reusable shopping bags, she'd be in and out and back home within an hour – an intentional feat that allowed her to use her bus transfer ticket rather than pay for another fare.

Now, it's much more complicated. Laurie's options are Meijer on Westnedge or Harding's on West Main, both a half-an-hour bus ride (and multiple transfers), and both involve a full bus fare in either direction. Laurie says this triples her shopping time for the same amount of groceries. She says she could shop at the Park Street Market, but that, too, involves a trip to the transfer station and a three block walk. Because Laurie suffers from Social Anxiety Disorder, learning new bus routes and unfamiliar stores is challenging in ways it might not be for someone else. She sometimes relies on friends with vehicles to offer her a ride to the store, but of course, schedules don't always align.

Matt Callander of Callander Commercial, the brokerage firm handling the transaction of the Harding's Market sale, says he hopes the transaction will be complete within thirty days or so. Until then, he's unable to comment on the name of the developer or the potential uses for the future space, nor does he know how open the new ownership will be to public input. He hopes, as the residents do, that the developer will be proactive in listening to resident's concerns. But for now, it's a waiting game.

Steve Walsh, the Executive Director of the Vine Neighborhood Association says, “there are many in Vine who do not have transportation or an easy way to get to public transportation, and this difficulty will now be exacerbated. I think that although the 'inconvenienced' crowd has been most vocal through social media and drop-ins, there are likely many more folks out there who now struggle to procure food--and don't forget the store housed a pharmacy, so now folks will have to figure out where to go for meds. This quiet part of the populace is really in a tough spot now.”

Walsh hopes that the owners recognize the potential that this space holds for a grocery store and pharmacy, and points out that, “At the conflux of Park Street and Westenedge Avenue, thousands of cars pass by this spot everyday, and there are many thousands of residents who live within a five minute drive from this location. My hope is that the new owner embraces and understand the reality that 1) People will utilize a market in that location and 2)There is a a movement afoot to live within urban areas. There are 80 million millennials and over half them don't drive.”

Kathi Valeii is a writer, speaker, and activist living in Kalamazoo. She writes about gender-based oppression and full spectrum reproductive rights at her blog, birthanarchy.com.

Photos by
Susan Andress

 
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