Growth in the desert

Published 7:30 pm Saturday, February 13, 2016

Whatever your position on the future of downtown Suffolk — whether you believe the area is the right place for a college campus or you think such a project would create its own set of problems — one thing that just about everyone agrees on regarding the city’s central business district is that it’s in desperate need of a grocery store.

In fact, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has designated Suffolk’s downtown area as a “food desert,” noting that residents there have to travel too far to the nearest supermarket and that their income and rate of vehicle ownership make it especially hard for them to do so.

The problem with such areas, officials say, is that folks without easy access to the kind of high-quality, healthful food sold in supermarkets are apt to choose simple, less-wholesome things for their meals, things like ready-made snacks and meals from convenience stores. Such meals have far lower nutritional value — and, often, far more unhealthy ingredients — than the fresh vegetables, fruits and other things that are available at most grocery stores.

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There are folks who are working to try to change the situation, and what’s most interesting is the intersection of interests motivating their involvement. Some are interested because of the health issues at stake, and others — though responsive to the health arguments for a downtown supermarket — are primarily focused on the economic development benefits such a business would bring.

They’re all right. Downtown Suffolk needs a supermarket, because the folks who live there deserve access to healthy lifestyle alternatives, just like those in other parts of the city. And downtown Suffolk needs a supermarket, because it would help sell the area as a good place to live, which would, in turn, help sell the area as a good place to do business.

A proposed state initiative, the Virginia Grocery Investment Fund, which Gov. Terry McAuliffe has included in his proposed budget, would provide incentives to attract grocery stores into underserved areas like downtown Suffolk. Under the terms of the proposal, the state would invest $10 million to sweeten the pot for potential supermarket developers and grocery chains. Officials hope that investment would attract another $90 million worth of worth of private capital and federal dollars.

The group in Suffolk is lobbying Delegate Chris Jones (R-Suffolk), chair of the House Appropriations Committee, to support the initiative. He should do so unreservedly. It’s time to see if Virginia can help something healthy grow in downtown Suffolk’s food desert.