Food desert: Central residents long for a grocery store as negotiations drag on

When Cleveland Central neighborhood resident Tesia McDonald wants to get fresh groceries for her four children, she must walk roughly 30 to 40 minutes, shop, then carry everything home.

Since she doesn’t have a car, McDonald can sometimes catch a bus to the store—which does help—but she says public transit isn’t always reliable. And sometimes she has her kids with her, further complicating matters.

<span class="content-image-text">Tesia McDonald, a Central neighborhood resident, must walk at least 30 minutes to the nearest grocery store, a difficult task considering she’s shopping for her four children. She’s seen here with a kitten she’s raising.</span>Tesia McDonald, a Central neighborhood resident, must walk at least 30 minutes to the nearest grocery store, a difficult task considering she’s shopping for her four children. She’s seen here with a kitten she’s raising.This is the reality for many residents in Cleveland’s Central neighborhood, which has been without a grocery store for about three years, when Dave's Market left the area.

“It stresses me out and it makes me unmotivated to cook, to eat healthy,” McDonald says. “I’d rather just go to the corner store and get a bag of chips.”

Burten, Bell, Carr Development (BBC), the community development corporation (CDC) that serves the Central neighborhood, has sought to find a supermarket to come to Arbor Park Place, a shopping plaza it operates in Central, but recent negotiations with a potential operator fell through.

This is all happening in a neighborhood where roughly 55% of households don’t own a car, according to an analysis of 2019 American Community Survey data.

While there is a Dave’s grocery store about 30 minutes away by foot, McDonald says she prefers to go to the nearest ALDI or to the Heinen’s downtown. She doesn’t have a job and one of her children has a lot of food allergies, and so she says she prefers ALDI prices and Heinen’s offerings over Dave’s. 

She also sometimes catches a bus to the Steelyard Commons shopping area to go to the stores there, but that also can be dicey.

“You’ve got a couple minutes to shop before the bus comes back around or you have to wait another hour,” McDonald says.

Food deserts, or what some now call “food apartheid,” persist throughout Cleveland, including in the Central neighborhood. These are areas defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as communities “where people have limited access to a variety of healthy and affordable food,” often without access to supermarkets.

These areas are especially concentrated on Cleveland’s East and South sides where residents of historically redlined neighborhoods are dealing with some of the highest poverty rates in the city. In fact, in 2018 about 35% of Cuyahoga County residents and 59% of Cleveland residents lived in such “food deserts.” That’s according to a 2019 assessment of residents’ access to supermarkets in Cuyahoga County by the Cuyahoga County Board of Health and Cuyahoga County Planning Commission

This food desert issue resurfaced this year when the Dave’s Market in Collinwood announced it would be closing in late April. At the time, Cleveland City Councilman Mike Polensek said the owners cited numerous reasons for the closure of the Collinwood store, including “low sales volume” and a “drop in revenue”—although plenty of other factors likely played into that decision.

<span class="content-image-text">Joy Johnson, executive director of Burten, Bell, Carr Development Inc., speaks during a Cuyahoga County event in mid-August 2021 meant to gather input on the Surge in Cleveland’s Central neighborhood</span>Joy Johnson, executive director of Burten, Bell, Carr Development Inc., speaks during a Cuyahoga County event in mid-August 2021 meant to gather input on the Surge in Cleveland’s Central neighborhoodMeanwhile, Joy Johnson, executive director of BBC, said the CDC continues to work on bringing a grocery store to the shopping plaza in Central. She said negotiations with a grocery store partner interested in moving into the space fell flat after both parties couldn’t agree on the terms of the lease, specifically around use of local contractors.

“We are sure the end result would be a store that provides quality goods and services that would hire from the community, but we want to make sure on the front end that there’s a benefit to local contractors and construction workers as well,” she says.

It’s not clear now if the CDC is talking to other potential stores. Joe Janes, the owner of the Janes Group, independently operates 15 Save-a-Lot stores in Greater Cleveland, which were acquired in March 2021. Janes was in talks with BBC and Ward 5 Councilman Richard Starr to bring one of his stores to the Arbor Park Place mall before negotiations were ended by BBC, Starr says.

“We need some good quality food to be able to be served in our community, and it is imperative to them [residents] to make that happen, and for us to put aside some of the differences that we’re having,” Starr says.

Janes says he wanted to stay at the table and figure out how to make the project work for everyone, but declined to talk specifics about the contract negotiation. Starr says Janes was willing to use all local or minority-operated contractors for the build-out of the store, per requirements from BBC, but a sticking point came about when Janes wanted to use the same contractor he had used previously for build-out of the refrigeration systems. 

Plus, BBC’s Johnson has previously said potential grocery store operators have asked for roughly $400,000 in renovations to the Arbor Park Place storefront, funding which would likely need to come from external sources like local governments.

Johnson has not responded to follow-up questions on if the community development corporation is now pursuing a different operator.

Starr says he felt the CDC wasn’t willing enough to make its own concessions in the negotiations. In the initial interview with Johnson, she did offer that finding a grocery store to come into the shopping mall is an evolving process that requires a lot of due diligence by all parties.

“What we have learned,” Johnson says, “is typically property owners make a lot of concessions to have a grocery store in their places because they know it’s something that’s going to attract people and can rent out other places nearby at a higher rate if they accept a lower rate [for the] grocery store.” 

Starr notes he wasn’t on board with a Save-A-Lot coming to Central initially. But he and community advocate Walter Patton toured the Save-A-Lots operated by the Janes Group in Cleveland and say they came away highly impressed. Patton said the fresh produce and meat offerings were “great,” on par with many other area grocery stores.

“They hired how the community looks,” Patton says. “On Broadway there was a mixture of Black and white workers. On Clark [Avenue], it was Puerto Rican workers.”

Janes explains that as an independent licensee of Save-A-Lot stores, he has significant leeway to operate the stores differently compared to other Save-A-Lots.

Meanwhile, in Collinwood, Janes says the Save-a-Lot on Neff Road operated by his company has picked up a lot of new customers since Dave's Market left Collinwood—customers who say they are pleased with the store’s offerings. 

Roger Sikes, program manager of Creating Healthy Communities with the Cuyahoga County Board of Health, said the solution to a lack of supermarkets in low-income neighborhoods in Cleveland is complex. It will mean partnerships between the community, the government, nonprofits and private business. 

Sikes said Simon’s Supermarket in Euclid is a good example of how that could work. The market got several grants and loans from the government and nonprofits, including $125,000 from the city of Euclid to fund build-out of the store. In tandem, there were several “large-scale” community forums where residents advocated for what they wanted in the store. 

Sikes says the process was a success in that it resulted in a full-service grocery store in a low-income neighborhood, but tensions persist between the store ownership and the neighborhood.

Sikes says that for a grocery store to truly succeed in these neighborhoods, they’ll need community buy-in. They should hire from the community and provide those workers with a living wage; provide products the community asks for; and actively seek out feedback on operations.

“I don’t think that public funding is going to solve all of our food deserts; supermarkets are making an economic calculation as to where they can stabilize and be profitable,” Sikes says. “But I would say anytime you have funding, money that’s out there to help someone do something, I mean, c’mon, that’s real.”

Back in Central, only time will tell when the neighborhood will again have easier access to fresh food.

In the meantime, residents like Tesia McDonald will still face long walks to get access to fresh meat and produce.

“It's no wonder that people just go to the corner stores and shop,” she says.

This story is a part of the Northeast Ohio Solutions Journalism Collaborative’s Making Ends Meet project. NEO SoJo is composed of 18-plus Northeast Ohio news outlets including FreshWater Cleveland.

Conor Morris
Conor Morris

About the Author: Conor Morris

 Conor Morris is a corps member with Report for America. Morris covered Appalachian southeast Ohio for the weekly newspaper The Athens News for six years. He reported on Athens County, but especially local government, the campus of Ohio University (his alma mater), cops and courts, and the social and economic issues facing the residents of Ohio’s poorest county. Morris helped guide The News toward two Newspaper of the Year awards in its division of the annual Ohio News Media Association Hooper Contest. Morris himself won six first-place Hooper awards for his reporting over the years, including for a story series about police and hospital failures in a sexual- assault investigation in Athens. Morris was born in Marietta, Ohio.