For Queen Calhoun, 30, a simple grocery shopping trip can be an exhausting affair that takes several hours.
The resident of the Hollywood neighborhood, who does not own a car, has to walk to the nearest Kroger, in Frayser, more than three miles away. Though there are a couple of corner stores and a dollar store nearby, there are few options for fresh produce.
Calhoun refuses to take the bus because she was “traumatized,” she said, when a car she was in was hit by a bus that ran a red light. The accident and resulting injuries also made it impossible for her to continue her work as a waitress at Pancho’s restaurant. Yet she must make the long march to buy food; she’s the mother of four.
“The kids gotta eat,” she said.
But on a recent morning, passing by the Hollywood Community Center, Calhoun spotted the Mobile Grocer, an initiative of the community development corporation The Works Inc. For about a month, the grocery store on wheels had been making a biweekly stop at the center, about three minutes from her apartment. After discovering the 44-foot trailer, she did some shopping, and that afternoon, she came back to pick up strawberries for her kids, aged 3 to 10.
“It’s really convenient,” Calhoun said of the truck.
With 19% price increases since 2020, the end of COVID benefits and limited access to transportation, poor Memphians, already living in food deserts — low-income areas with no supermarkets — are looking to community sources for help putting food on the table.
Memphis nonprofit, volunteer and religious organizations are mounting a range of efforts to address the problem, from food pantries to hot-meal distributions to community fridges and roving grocery stores. And what is at stake is not merely a question of filling people’s bellies.
Research indicates a link between chronic diseases — such as heart disease, cancer, asthma, diabetes and kidney disease — and low food security. According to the Shelby County Commission’s 2022 District Health Profile, people who live in Memphis’ poorest areas, generally with poor food access, live 11 years fewer than more upscale areas across town.
The USDA has mapped areas with inadequate food access across the U.S. The map confirms that the poorest areas, including the poorest neighborhoods in Memphis, are also the ones with the least access to nutritious food. Black people are more than twice as likely to experience food insecurity as white people, according to the USDA.
The national nonprofit food bank Feeding America estimates that 103,440 people in Shelby County are food insecure; half of that number, 50,850, are children.
Though they serve as essential stopgaps, nonprofits and others emphasize the need to address basic, structural problems. As Pastor Tony Coleman of the First Congregational Church put it, he would like his church’s food program to initiate policy discussions to help Memphians “think more about poverty and equity and what it means to be a compassionate city.”
A double whammy: inflation and federal cutbacks
Low-income families that receive assistance, already hit by inflation, are also suffering from cutbacks in federal pandemic programs. Notably, a 2021 child tax credit expired at the end of that year, and a plan that increased Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits stopped in Tennessee at the same time — though other states continued the program till the end of February 2023. (Individual states have leeway in deciding how to administer federal benefits.)
A survey of SNAP recipients showed significant differences between states, such as Tennessee, that ended emergency allotments early and those that did not. The states that ended benefits early showed higher levels of skipped meals, relying on others for meals and visiting food pantries. A look at dollar amounts shows why. Households in states that offered emergency food assistance received at least $95 per month over their regular benefits; the average person received about $90 more.
But even if they had the money to buy sufficient food, families living in food deserts would need a way to get to the nearest supermarket.
For many in Memphis’ poorest neighborhoods, owning a car is not feasible. Therefore they are obligated to rely on a dysfunctional public transportation system, which is considering eliminations or partial suspensions of at least 19 routes and ending service after 7 p.m. (a decision on these proposals was postponed after community meetings). The suggested eliminations include the Southeast Circulator, Airport and Walnut Grove routes, and the Madison and Riverfront trolley lines. These would come on top of the 2021 elimination of the Boxtown, Firestone and Germantown routes; the Memphis Area Transportation Authority reduced service in four other routes at the time. Some of these lines serve or served food-desert areas.
‘You’re literally keeping people from starving’
Along with nonprofits like The Works Inc., religious and volunteer-run organizations are also serving as stopgaps in the food scarcity landscape. First Congo, the First Congregational Church in Cooper-Young, wanted to address food scarcity back in 2011 when it began a program of distributing groceries once a month after Sunday services, about 80 to 100 boxes of groceries to as many families.
Since then, the program has grown so that it has hired a director to oversee its Food Justice Ministries and now includes sack and hot lunches during the week, a weekly “pantry” (grocery distribution) and redistributing food from partners such as Panera Bread, Starbucks, Chick-fil-A, Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s — perfectly good food that would have otherwise been thrown away.
“I’ve heard just recently, ‘if you did not give me this pantry, my family would be hungry this week,’” said Ann Wallace, director of the church’s Food Justice Ministries. “I know the work that we do is impactful, but to me, that’s when it really hits home is that literally, you’re keeping people from starving through this work.”
She said participants in the program are in such precarious situations that one setback — a breakup or an illness — may cause “people to spiral, and then it’s hard for them to get back on their feet.” The church has found people living in its parking lot, under the building and even “setting up camp” in the church without the church’s permission, Wallace said.
Coleman, the church’s senior pastor, estimates that today the church gives away 700 boxes of groceries a month and serves 60 to 100 people lunches four days a week. He notes that recent reductions in federal benefits, especially for families with children, have made a bad situation worse.
The return to pre-pandemic-level benefits falls short, he said, because it doesn’t take inflation into account — and that even at maximum levels, some families still had trouble putting food on the table. Families, he said, are feeling pinched by housing costs, utility bills and stagnant wages.
‘A fridge on every corner’
First Congo relies not only on its own staff and church-member volunteers for its food programs, but other volunteer organizations as well. David Virone and Neal Trotter of Memphis Food Not Bombs, a volunteer organization dedicated to nonviolent social change, were at the Downtown Farmer’s Market on a recent Saturday to collect food from benevolent vendors at the market; they said they would later bring their haul to First Congo. They gathered squash of several sorts, sweet potatoes, lettuce, peppers, eggplant and boxed meals from a food truck. All would have otherwise gone to waste.
Food Not Bombs also works to stock the open-air refrigerators established by 901 Community Fridges. The idea is to “take what you want and leave what you can.” 901 Community Fridges currently has three sites, at First Congo, the Holy Trinity Community Church in Messick Buntyn and the Binghamton Community Church.
At the end of October, Food Not Bombs established a community fridge of its own in Cordova at The Memphis Church.
Trotter said that the group’s model of collecting free food from donors proves that efforts to address food scarcity need not be costly.
“It’s a misconception that you have to spend money to feed people,” Trotter said. “We really don’t have to spend anything at all.”
As he spoke, a man with a limp and two blankets around his neck asked for a meal. Virone handed him one of the boxed meals.
Although one might think that the pandemic was the high point for food scarcity, “it’s pretty much constant,” Virone said. When group members arrive to stock a fridge, people come up to get food before it can even be stowed away, he said.
After the Cordova fridge, the group hopes to establish more.
“We won’t be done until there’s a fridge on every corner,” Virone vowed.
Choosing medicine or food
The Works Inc.’s Mobile Grocer, inspired by a similar effort in Louisville, Ky., just celebrated its first year in October. It makes six stops around the city, providing reasonably priced groceries, including fresh produce, in some of the city’s food deserts, largely in North and South Memphis.
At a stop at the Dr. R.Q. Venson Center, a senior residence Downtown, BJ Adams, the manager and driver, pauses to discuss his work. Adams has been the sole driver during the shop’s one-year existence. He notes that the truck offers “one stop,” where people can “get everything they need.” The truck stocks greens and tomatoes that come from The Works Inc.’s own urban plots.
During the year, he has learned the specific preferences of customers at various locations. “Some of my locations, I have people that like ginger or avocado. Then, some of our locations, they want more greens, or they may want more meat. … Other locations, I may have more children, so you’re going to have people buying ramen noodles.” Shoppers can pre-order items, and the Mobile Grocer will have their groceries ready when it pulls up.
At senior centers such as this one, Adams said, residents are generally dependent on family or transportation services that may charge $20 to take residents grocery shopping — $20 that could have gone toward groceries.
Estela Kuykindall, 74, is in a wheelchair after a recent stroke. Normally, she said, she would have to take a bus to the Kroger in Midtown, where shopping in a wheelchair can be a time-consuming challenge. Today, she bought turnip greens and a beef neck bone at the Mobile Grocer.
She hailed the convenience of the truck and found the prices reasonable.
“You don’t have to go nowhere; just go in there and out,” she said.
Ester Patrick, 77, a volunteer with the Mobile Grocer, pointed out that many seniors have to make hard choices with a limited budget.
“We got to make a decision between food or medicine,” she said. Though she is now more secure, Patrick said that she herself used to have to make that choice.
In fact, Feeding America, in a 2023 report, found that 79% of those experiencing food insecurity said they skipped or delayed other needs — like seeing a doctor, filling a prescription or paying for health insurance — to pay for food for themselves and their families at some point during the last two years.
The Mobile Grocer’s cashier, Sophia Dandridge, a North Memphis resident and mother of two, said that she too had struggled with food access. Rather than spend funds on an undependable bus, she often preferred to save the money for groceries. She has, therefore, made hours-long walks to a supermarket or ridden a bike with heavy bags.
Dandridge summed up her own situation and that of others she served.
“The struggle is real,” she said.
Where to find food
The Mobile Grocer posts its schedule on Facebook. It accepts cash, credit, debit and EBT cards. Customers can sign up for the SoMe Fresh Savings Program, which allows SNAP recipients to earn an extra $20 for each $20 spent on produce. Seniors (aged 60 and older) who don’t have SNAP benefits can earn an extra $10 for each $10 spent. Any customer who spends $10 or more gets a star; 10 stars earn customers $10 for free groceries.
The Mobile Grocer makes the following stops and will soon be adding a stop in South City:
- Hollywood Community Center, 1560 N. Hollywood St., 38108
- Dr. R.Q. Venson Center, 439 Beale St., 38103
- Legends Park North, 295 W. Red Sox Lane, 38105
- Senior Living at University Place, 600 S. Somerville St., 38104
- Northside Square, 1212 Vollintine Ave., 38017
- Renaissance at Steele, 3085 Steele St. 38127
First Congregational Church, 1000 S. Cooper St., 38104:
- Serves a sack lunch on Monday and hot lunches Tuesday-Thursday, 10 a.m.-noon, with extra packed meals distributed on Thursday for the weekend
- Distributes groceries every Wednesday, from 10 a.m. to noon; emergency pantry deliveries are sometimes possible
- There is also a community fridge on its property, which it does not manage
901 Community Fridges has sites at:
- First Congregational Church, 1000 S Cooper St., 38104
- Holy Trinity Community Church, 685 S. Highland St., 38111
- Binghampton Community Church, 362 Tillman St., 38112
The Memphis Food Not Bombs fridge is at:
- The Memphis Church, 7400 Cordova Club Dr. E., 38018
MLK50 would like to continue to expand this list of Memphis food resources. If you know of a food pantry or other program that addresses the problem of food scarcity, please email sono.motoyama@MLK50.com.
Sono Motoyama is the science writer for MLK50: Justice Through Journalism. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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