Out of the Desert 

Shelby County government hopes to attract major grocery stores to low-income areas.

The Soulsville neighborhood gave birth to the careers of Stax legends like Isaac Hayes and Otis Redding, but good luck finding an organic apple.

Considered a "food desert," a large geographic area lacking mainstream grocery stores, Soulsville is the first neighborhood on the list for a county initiative to attract healthier options to low-income urban areas.

In early May, interim county mayor Joe Ford announced a partnership between county government, the National Urban Financial Institution, and Schnucks. Though details are still unclear, the first goal of the partnership would mean a Schnucks store in the new $11.5 million Towne Center development located across the street from the Stax Museum of American Soul Music on McLemore.

"If you go inside the grocery stores in these food desert areas, they basically sell the bare necessities and cheaper-grade food," said Shaunda Glass with the National Urban Financial Institution, a nonprofit organization geared toward micro-lending for small businesses in urban areas. "There's no healthy food section."

The lack of healthy choices in low-income urban communities can lead to higher rates of obesity and diabetes in those areas.

Save-a-Lot on Bellevue is the only large grocery store in Soulsville, and a quick look inside revealed a limited produce selection with basics such as lettuce, potatoes, onions, tomatoes, and some fruit. The snack-cake display was as large as the produce section.

Glass' group will work with Schnucks to provide financial incentives to locate in Soulsville. That could mean winning grant money from the Department of Housing and Urban Development or using the local payment-in-lieu-of-taxes program.

"They won't be taking the risk all alone if they have incentives from the county," Glass said.

As of press time, there was no timeline for when the store might open.

The food desert initiative came out of the Mayor Ford's Women's Economic Empowerment Think Tank, a coalition of women dedicated to growing and forming businesses in Shelby County.

"I already knew there were issues with inner-city communities being able to find a potato chip but not a potato, but nothing was being done about it," said Pamela Marshall, Ford's chief of staff. "So we talked about this at the first think-tank meeting as an opportunity to address that need. It addresses economic empowerment for women, as well as providing a healthy table for women as they prepare food for their children."

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