Transportation, poverty at heart of issue exposed by grocery store closures, and Walmart fire
– By Gabriel Pietrorazio
Five days after a devastating fire burned the interior loft-area of Walmart on 5&20 in Geneva, the vital grocery store remains closed.
White Springs Fire Chief Tim Higgins estimated that 10 percent of the store suffered heavy smoke and fire damage, which was contained in the west side of the store.
Fortunately, no one was hurt or injured during the fire that was reported around 12:30 p.m. on Wednesday, January 22nd.
Walmart’s corporate office was not clear on when the store would reopen but noted that updates would be shared on social media.
That hasn’t helped families who are searching for grocery options in the Geneva area.
The roaring flames that scorched the 24-hour superstore and sensationalized media coverage of the burning building functions as a façade to the underlying issue that Geneva faces: a serious food insecurity crisis.
While Walmart opened its pharmacy on Saturday, the remainder of the store including its vital grocery and produce departments remain closed.
In the meantime, as everyone else waits for the superstore to reopen, many may still go hungry in the aftermath as issues of food insecurity are heightened with the closure of one of the areas remaining stores.
The City of Geneva has a crisis. One that officials have been aware of since 2017.
In a study titled “Food Security in the City of Geneva, New York 2017-2018,” the abstract “uses demographic data to examine potential issues of food access in the city.”
A term that is often tossed around in the discourse is ‘food desert,’ which is an area where it is difficult to buy affordable or high-quality fresh food.
If the distance extends past more than a mile — it’s often considered a ‘food desert’.
The study identifies four key grocery locations that provide consumers with reliable sources of food options: Walmart, Wegmans, Tops Friendly Market and BJs Wholesale Club.
Since the report was released, and by the end of this month – two of those supermarkets will have shut down. BJs will close on February 1st, according to company officials.
The closure of Tops has hurt the community. Many ethnic foods were available exclusively at Tops. Now, those items are no longer available for members of marginalized communities who would frequent Tops for a vast array of cultural food items.
Food Access AmeriCorps VISTA Kevin Collado said the absence of Tops has had a “noticeable, physical impact as well as a less visible one.”
Collado has officially completed his Asset Based Community Development assessment that started in September 2018 to provide insights about struggles for food access and how to potentially remedy issues surrounding the ‘food desert problem’ in Geneva by bringing together stakeholders from across the spectrum.
The assessment consists of interviewing 200 community members through focus groups; each interviewer asks the same eight questions that are catalogued and recorded.
Although the report has not been published yet, Collado was willing to issue a statement on the current food insecurity situation in Geneva following the fire at Walmart:
“Last week’s midday fire at the Geneva Walmart highlights the serious issues that exist with the lack of access to food in our community. Not only does this unexpected incident require residents who consistently rely on Walmart as a source of food to redirect their spending dollars elsewhere and change their shopping habits, albeit for a short while, but it puts further strain on the food system in Geneva which is already tenuous as it is.
Considering the recent closings of retail locations in Geneva that have provided food in some capacity, including Madia’s, Tops, Rite Aid, and BJ’s as some of the most impactful, there is an increasing need for greater access to healthy, fresh, and affordable food in our community. This is specifically problematic for Geneva because of our large population of low-income families and individuals, often overlapping with the elderly, disabled, and immigrant communities which are most impacted by barriers such as a lack of access to transportation, leading to higher rates of food insecurity.
There have been efforts to ameliorate this lack of access to food in the city of Geneva, a recent one being the proposal of a new Byrne Dairy at the five-points intersection of downtown with a commitment to providing grocery items and, in particular, a small fresh produce section. Being that this is in a central location of the city, this will surely aid in providing greater options for accessing food to residents.
Although this is certainly positive, recent research shows that proximity to supermarkets or grocery stores isn’t the driving factor for an increase in healthy eating habits. Therefore, while residents might have increased access to fresh fruits and vegetables, this doesn’t directly correlate to an increase in fruit and vegetable consumption.
So, while it might seem intuitive to place a grocery store in Geneva’s “food desert”, the real issue at the heart of this lack of food access is poverty. Instead of enticing and possibly subsidizing a food market, the question then becomes how can government officials make healthy food less cost-prohibitive, incentivize residents to buy and consume more fruits and vegetables, while also investing in programs and organizations that provide education for food preparation, nutrition, and making the most of a fixed-income budget. This has become increasingly important, especially as our country continues to move away from brick-and-mortar grocery stores in favor of a more decentralized system for food access.”
BJs Wholesale, one of the four grocers require patrons to maintain an annual membership, is costly for individuals and families on fixed incomes and those remain below, or close to the poverty line.
The company issued the following statement at the time of their closure announcement:
“We continuously evaluate our strategic footprint to ensure it supports our growth initiatives and drives value for members and shareholders. We remain on track to open two new clubs in the first half of 2020 – one in Pensacola, FL. and one Chesterfield, MI, and are aggressively building our real estate pipeline moving forward. We expect to close one club in Charlotte, N.C. and one in Geneva, NY by February 1, 2020. We are committed to supporting our Team Members through this transition. Team members will be eligible to apply for positions at other BJ’s locations and will be eligible for severance.”
It was also reported that refunds may be issued to current members, but the company expects that many of its customers to visit other store locations in Victor, Auburn and Rochester.
While BJs Wholesale assumes that some shall travel elsewhere for groceries and other household items, a sizeable population of residents in Geneva are still unable to access other store locations of any kind without reliable forms of public or personal transportation.
“Transportation is the largest hurdle”
While Collado says that support is present to improve pre-existing public transportation systems, the challenge is no small feat.
“Transportation is the largest hurdle,” Collado said.
In recent years, even the act of carrying grocery bags has been a point of contention.
A former policy allowed each person to carry no more than two-bags on a public bus.
However, Collado recalls that the maximum two-bag rule has been revoked as of 2018 and since been replaced with a no-bag limit as long as the person is able to carry and fit within the seat itself.
Although the rule has been officially disbanded, the “short-sighted” decision and legacy remains intact without alerting residents that this procedural policy has changed.
The Regional Transit System confirmed this change with FingerLakes1.com.
Under the “Discussion” section, the study says, “While bus routes are available, riding a public bus with groceries is time-consuming and cumbersome. A more specific transportation solution should be considered for this issue, such as a shuttle or a rideshare program, to provide low or no-cost transport to those who live in the focus area.”
Beyond the complications surrounding the usage of public transportation for grocery shopping, privatized solutions come with their own set of challenges. Especially for financially struggling families with limited means.
Often parked outside the front doors of Walmart, a van with the Todd’s Taxi roof sign waits for shoppers to return to the vehicle with their groceries.
Collado points to cost as a significant barrier for those who might be better suited getting a taxi, given the limitations of the local public bus system.
Under the “Access to Food” category in the study, it cites that within a half-mile buffer to establish a reasonable walking distance, “no city residents are able to walk to Walmart or BJs Wholesale.”
The study also indicates that 179 addresses without any registered vehicles exist within a half-mile radius of Tops or Wegmans.
“In theory these residents would be able to walk for groceries, ability and weather permitting,” the study states.
However, an additional 600 residences still remain outside of walking distance any of the designated grocers, most of which are consolidated within Wards 5 and 6.
In the past, Collado noted that the Hildreth Hill, Downtown and East Lakeview neighborhoods are most likely to be at risk of food insecurity, where the concentration of public assistance recipients and vehicle scarcity exists.
Consequently, the visceral issues surrounding food insecurities have been intensified with the absence of Walmart as an affordable grocery store for residents.
The Canandaigua Walmart Superstore is an estimated 20-minutes away from Geneva while the Waterloo store is slightly closer at a 17-minute drivetime.
With its most direct route, the journey to Waterloo is 9-miles and about 14-miles for Canandaigua.
Families and even some smaller food businesses have since been forced to travel elsewhere to purchase groceries at other Walmart Superstores in neighboring communities.
“The real issue at the heart of this lack of food access is poverty”
Greater access to healthy, fresh and affordable food should be the city’s priority, but food products are still commonly expensive.
The City of Geneva is demographically disadvantaged based on the most vulnerable groups who are impacted by the food insecurity issue.
“This is specifically problematic for Geneva because of our large population of low-income families and individuals, often overlapping with the elderly, disabled, and immigrant communities which are most impacted by barriers such as a lack of access to transportation, leading to higher rates of food insecurity,” Collado told FingerLakes1.com.
Healthier foods are more expensive, and Collado’s outlined demographic have difficulty in purchasing quality food products, especially when considering the city’s distribution of income.
Based on the study’s findings, the citywide median household income is estimated at $40,000.
The only four block groups that report less than this average are the four included in the focus area, C, F, H, and I.
The study breaks-down the city into blocked areas, each assigned with a letter. Block areas F, H and I all reside within Wards 5 and 6. While C rests within the downtown district.
Coincidentally, the three blocked areas in Wards 5 and 6 surpass and even double the 9.6 percent citywide supplemental security income (SSI) average among Geneva residents of working age.
Block F has been marked at 20.1 percent, H at 27.6 percent and I at 22.7 percent.
Block group I, which roughly corresponds to the Downtown neighborhood, claims the lowest median household income, at $18.947, less than half the city average.
Another supplement, public assistance income, also known as PAI provides cash payments to economically disenfranchised families or individuals.
Citywide, 7.5 percent of Geneva residents over the age of 16 receive PAI.
The study also shows that that block areas C, F, G and M all exceed 10 percent while the eight of the thirteen block groups do not surpass 5 percent.
“Block group I, the downtown neighborhood, more than triples the citywide average at 23.6 percent,” the study states.
As for retirement income, more than half of Geneva’s block groups exceed the city’s 18.9 percent average.
Collado uniquely also acknowledged the vulnerability of the city’s high aging and elderly population on the forefront of the food access issue.
Block groups A, B, C, D, G, J, and K each indicate that an estimated 20-30 percent of residents receive retirement income.
“Although this is not evidence of a community at risk, this pattern might point to areas best served by shuttle service or meal delivery as the residents age in place,” the study contends.
This data suggests that issues of poverty persist throughout the city, which impacts the power and spending ability of any customer and especially those who must change their habits even for a short period of time by no longer shopping at Walmart during its closure in the aftermath of the fire.
More importantly, the constraints of fixed-income limits where customers can purchase goods at other stores like Wegmans by compromising on higher prices out of sheer necessity while changing social behaviors within the process.
“Redirect their spending dollars elsewhere and change their shopping habits”
Under the “Existing Food Resources” header, the city study classifies alternative locations where residents can acquire food products from various organizations.
One of those entities is Food Justice of Geneva, which has championed stewardship on behalf of the food access issue years ahead of the ‘food desert’ discourse.
Most recently after years of struggle, the organization obtained its official 501(c)3 non-profit status this last December.
For the last five-years, Food Justice has operated by “funding out of pocket” and acquiring a 501(c)3 status shall allow the organization to apply for grant opportunities and ask for foundation donations, which will be “a game changer” for Food Justice, as told by Shaffer.
This year alone, Food Justice gleaned and collected 44,900 pounds of produce and organizers cannot wait until 2020 for the new year and all the future possibilities that it holds.
Since the study, other organizations have emerged in support of this mission like BluePrint Geneva.
While community actors have begun to carry the mantle on this critical issue that impacts vulnerable populations, the outgoing Geneva City Council withdrew their financial support by harshly cutting-back and even defunding their respective budgets.
During the 2019-20 city budget year, the organization was allocated $4,950 and this upcoming year’s 2020-21 approved city budget drops their collection by nearly half to $2,745.
Despite the uncertainty of funding dips, Food Justice fared well following the 2020-21 city budget’s allocation in comparison to its partner agency peers.
Out of 14 organizations that requested aid, only eight obtained some form of financial assistance and Food Justice ranked fifth overall for the highest pay-out among partner agencies.
Entities like BluePrint Geneva have suffered from city cutbacks by removing their budget lines altogether.
Comparatively, partner agencies like Food Justice last year received a total of $133,450 that was divided among the 14 organizations, but only $98,975 has been allocated to the same groups for this year’s city budget.
The visible decline accounts as an overall reduction in the partner agency budgeting by $34,475, which crunches-out to nearly a quarter of last year’s total budget allocation.
Growing Geneva Together, was another named organization from the study where residents could gather food items from if products were still around and in-season.
The community garden coalition was founded by Hobart and William Smith Colleges’ Finger Lakes Institute and sponsors around a dozen active edible community gardens in Geneva, mostly located at schools for educational purposes.
Additionally, the coalition distributes educational materials to help residents with home gardening.
Other avenues to accessing food that the city lists under this portion of study remain based on contingencies and constraints that lower-income and working-class residents cannot fully manage or control.
The Finger Lakes Institute was also identified as an additional food resource, but this entity is tailored toward its partnership with Hobart and William Smith Colleges.
The Colleges that owns a campus food farm known as Fribolin Farm educates students about food production and community food systems.
Finger Lakes Institute programming includes student hosted community dinners, community educational events, and community gardens at the college.
Similarly, a newer entity that was not identified in the study was the Colleges’ Pass the Plate food pantry, which offers food solely to college students and faculty on-campus.
As for the citywide farmers market, its exclusively a seasonal event during the summer months on Thursdays.
Organized by the Rochester-based regional food hub known as Foodlink, ‘Curbside Market’ is available weekly on Fridays year-round.
A mobile truck spends an estimated 45-minutes at each stop in Block area I at the Salvation Army as well as the Elmcrest and Seneca Apartments.
The chance of accessing the food truck is contingent upon a working schedule and an individual’s hours of availability.
The study also mentions the presence of meal programs including a summer food program which is funded by the Geneva city school district for persons who are 21-years-old or younger at various food pantry locations throughout the city.
Catholic Charities hosts a free hot lunch program at the Geneva Methodist Church on weekdays.
Additionally, the Center of Concern located on Avenue D offers food from its pantry to those who are in need year-round.
From a more market-driven model approach, the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station was also counted under this section.
Geneva is home to the Cornell’s New York State Agricultural Experiment Station, a longstanding satellite campus of Cornell University houses faculty from the Departments of Entomology and Food Science as well as the School of Integrative Plant Science.
This facility conducts research for programs to serve the state’s grape and wine industries, hop producers, bioenergy crop production, food entrepreneurs and farmers facing new crop pests and diseases, all of which are important scientific undertakings but do not directly engage with the ongoing food insecurity crisis that the city currently faces.
Lastly, the culinary incubator project that was built in 2017 for a community shared-use to “test and refine value-added food products right in Geneva.”
The study also admits that this space was not created to solely address the food access conflict, as it reads, “The kitchen is part of a larger effort to create a food and beverage innovation district in the city. Although this project doesn’t directly address issues of food security for low-income residents, the presence of a large-scale food production facility leaves open the possibility of including food access goals in creative solutions for managing the externalities like the potential food waste or educational sessions.”
In Collado’s previous statement issued to FingerLakes1.com, he mentioned the utter importance of investing in organizations like Food Justice and BluePrint Geneva “that provide education for food preparation, nutrition, and making the most of a fixed-income budget.”
However, this year alone, the city budget has seen a sharp decline by making decisions in where spending and investing in strategic partnership organizations.
Now more than ever, Collado argues that these financial commitments in the form of funding strategic partnership organizations along annual budget lines are essential, especially when a visible cultural shift is transpiring in America where “brick-and-mortar grocery stores” are dwindling ahead of a newer “more decentralized system for food access.”
“This has become increasingly important, especially as our country continues to move away from brick-and-mortar grocery stores in favor of a more decentralized system for food access,” Collado shared with FingerLakes1.com.
“This temporary inconvenience for some of us is a full-time reality, for people who live in Wards 5 and 6”
Under the “Discussion” header, the study argues that the most obvious solution is in fact the most difficult one “attracting a grocer to open a location in or near the focus area,” meaning Wards 5 and 6.
At the same time, the study concludes with this final statement, “Synthesizing public values with private business models is not always a viable task and other modes of distribution should be considered.”
In contrast, the newly sworn-in Geneva City Council are exploring the possibility of expanding downtown’s food innovation district.
During an all-day retreat held on Wednesday, January 23rd, new ideas were batted around for the freshmen council of which has welcomed eight new faces to occupy seats.
In a recent article published by The Finger Lakes Times, it was noted that Ward 3 City Councilor Jan Regan advised to “develop a food cooperative to address food-desert issues.”
The article expressed that a discussion ensued about whether food-beverage industry sectors create jobs that are financially supportive for entry-level workers like RealEats.
Ward 6 City Councilor John Pruett was cited by the Finger Lakes Times as someone who questions whether entities like the Cornell Agriculture and Food Technology Park have necessarily benefited the city from a perspective on taxation, even with the development of new businesses.
The most recent withdrawal of Cheribundi from the Tech Park has sparked some similar controversy in a way because tax revenue was not generated since it was owned by a nonprofit in Cornell.
Even in the aftermath of BJs Wholesale’s recent announcement about its closure, the Geneva City Council has not strongly entertained the possibility of addressing the food insecurity issue and rather continued perpetuating their prerogatives for bringing in businesses from the food-beverage industry for the innovation district during the all-day retreat.
With talks of Byrne Dairy relocating to downtown Geneva may help some residents purchase food products particularly dairy, this transition shall not transpire within the immediate or foreseeable future.
For Collado, his biggest question ponders, “the question becomes how can government officials make healthy food less cost-prohibitive, incentivize residents to buy and consume more fruits and vegetables, while also investing in programs and organizations that provide education for food preparation, nutrition, and making the most of a fixed-income budget.”
Laura Salemendra, Ward 5 city councilor has been consistently vocal on the food insecurity front.
As a part of the 2019 Geneva Candidate Snapshot Series, the then Democratic Party candidate explained her position on the issue.
“At the very least this is an emergency and it doesn’t mean that we need more programs that bring people food. People want dignity and the freedom to access a grocery store,” Salamendra said.
The solution for Salamendra is to call for a commitment to introduce a grocery store in Ward 6 that residents in Ward 5 may shop at for convenience, but she also wishes to fund more community gardening beds.
Ward 5 City Councilor Laura Salamendra issued the following statement to FingerLakes1.com on the subject of Walmart’s temporary closure and its immediate and indirect impacts:
“The fire at Walmart has made accessing food and other necessities even harder for working class folks in our community. People have been reaching out both concerned about their jobs and their access to groceries and medications. I heard Walmart expects to open pretty soon, but we should take this opportunity to remember that this temporary inconvenience for some of us is a full-time reality, for people who live in Ward 5 and 6.”
While most food security issues impact more vulnerable and disadvantaged demographics, the fire at Walmart hurts all: both the wealthy and poor, whether the city and residents are able acknowledge the situation or not.
More than framing the fire and shutdown of the superstore as an inconvenience, Walmart’s presence in Geneva remains as a vital produce cornerstone for many families after numerous grocers and food supplies have departed from the city.
Without Walmart, even for a short while, the food insecurity crisis “puts further strain on the food system in Geneva, which is already tenuous as it is,” Collado concluded.
Gabriel Pietrorazio is a senior at Hobart and William Smith Colleges. He’s written for the Town Times of Watertown, Connecticut Times, Finger Lakes Times, and current serves as reporter for FL1 News. Feedback, tips, and story ideas can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.