Group hopes efforts bear fruit

Published 9:59 pm Wednesday, February 10, 2016

A grocery store in the core downtown would improve access to healthy foods, provide jobs and eliminate blight, according to representatives of a loosely formed group working to entice a grocer to the area.

“Suffolk is a designated food desert, especially downtown, and that’s what this is all about,” said Bob Stephens, who is leading the charge.

Food deserts are areas judged to have low access to a supermarket based on distance from the closest supermarket, the income and vehicle ownership of the area and other factors. Depending on the factors used, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, there are census tracts in both downtown and North Suffolk that qualify as food deserts.

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Stephens believes a state initiative, combined with local support, could fix that problem.

The proposed Virginia Grocery Investment Fund, which Gov. Terry McAuliffe has included in his proposed budget, would provide incentives to attract grocery stores into underserved areas.

A $10 million state investment has been proposed, and officials hope it would attract $90 million worth of private capital and federal dollars.

“Nothing can happen if we don’t have any money,” Stephens said. He has contacted Delegate Chris Jones, of Suffolk, the House Appropriations chair, to encourage funding of the initiative.

If the Grocery Investment Fund were approved, Suffolk could get a piece of the pie, Stephens said.

Having a grocery store that provides fresh, affordable, healthy food is important for a number of reasons. Stephens said many people in food deserts may be getting their food from neighborhood markets, which rarely carry a large selection of produce and lean meats.

“When you drive down any street in Suffolk, you’re likely to see people walking from the local convenience store carrying a little bag of, probably, processed meats and chips,” Stephens said. “For some people, that’s their meal for the day.”

Stephens said the 300 block of East Washington Street is an area that could be a good location for a grocery store.

Dr. Douglas Naismith, chairman of the board of the Suffolk Partnership for a Healthy Community, said the partnership supports the effort to bring a store to the downtown core.

“We’re concerned about trying to keep healthy people healthy and healthier,” Naismith said. “Access to food is a major factor in that. Otherwise, people are inclined to probably resort to less healthy options and more expensive options. It’s an economic issue, and it’s a health issue.”

Dr. Nancy Welch, director of the Western Tidewater Health District, said she supports the effort both from an access standpoint and from an economic standpoint.

“People deserve the option of healthy choices no matter their socioeconomic (status), race, ethnicity or neighborhood,” Welch said. “When healthy foods are as easy to purchase as other foods, then more people will make a healthy choice, because people really do care about their health.”

Welch also said bringing more jobs to the area is positive.

“Most people truly want to work, to take pride in self-sustainment, and being able to work is a positive incentive,” she said.

Stephens said the wellness initiative is not all about a grocery store, but it’s likely to be the most visible result of the group’s efforts if it bears fruit.

“There are also other things we can do to bring about healthier lifestyles,” Stephens said. “I just want to see community support.

“It’s about helping people to know better so they can do better.”