The stage for the food insecurity that many Memphians live with today was set decades ago, when the city began gobbling up neighboring tracts of unincorporated Shelby County, in the belief it would avert urban decline caused by white flight. Memphis annexed more than 15 territories from 1970 to 2000, growing from 217 square miles to 324. (One podcast memorably called the urban planning strategy at the time a “Ponzi scheme” — as the city grew and grew, it depended on each new annexation to balance the budget.)

“Memphis decided to spread our city out over 300 square miles,” said Roshun Austin, president and CEO of The Works Inc., at a celebration for the Mobile Grocer’s first anniversary in Klondike. “We did not have the density of population to match that.”

She makes the comparison with San Francisco, where 808,437 people inhabit 47 square miles; Memphis sprawls over 325 square miles but is inhabited by 23% fewer people. Where San Francisco has a density of 17,200 people per square mile, Memphis has a density of 1,900.

Large chain grocers naturally want to be in areas where there are plenty of customers.

And as Memphis’ population density decreased over the decades, mom-and-pop grocers that served historically Black neighborhoods left. They were sometimes replaced by corner stores, dollar stores and gas stations, which usually don’t offer fresh fruits and vegetables (fresh produce spoils, which costs money), have limited stock and often charge high prices for low-quality nutrition. 

Sprawl and the resulting food deserts have had devastating effects on the health of people in poor neighborhoods, Austin said. The toll of diet-related disorders is high. Hypertension. Heart disease. Diabetes. Kidney failure. 

“We see incidences of that over and over again in these neighborhoods,” she said.

Sono Motoyama is the science writer for MLK50: Justice Through Journalism. Contact her at

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