When people who live west of Waldo and Southwest Hawthorne roads in Gainesville get a hankering for fresh food, they have nearly 24 places to choose from.
They have 10 Publix supermarkets. Three Winn-Dixies. Two Walmarts. Two Earth Origins. A Save-a-Lot. A Target. A Fresh Market. A Lucky’s. A Ward’s Supermarket. A newly opened Earth Fare. Add to that an Aldi food store that will be opening soon.
But people who live east of Waldo and Southwest Hawthorne roads only have two places to fulfill their fresh food needs. Two.
A Walmart and a Save-a-Lot.
The drought of fresh food stores has turned Gainesville’s east side into what the U.S. Department of Agriculture classifies as a food desert, or “urban neighborhoods and rural towns without ready access to fresh, healthy, and affordable food.”
The USDA’s Food Access Research Atlas maps the food deserts in the country and shows that several sections of Alachua County are food deserts.
Many areas east of Main Street are low-income areas, both urban and rural, at least 1 mile and 10 miles away from a supermarket, respectively, according to the USDA.
The USDA also states some people in those areas do not have vehicle access to the nearest supermarket.
Gainesville resident Dr. Vivian Haynes-Tinker knows the problem. She owns Sisters Helping Sisters in Need, a not-for-profit organization that supports people by providing food, clothing, hygiene products and more.
This summer, Haynes-Tinker said she watched a child feverishly lick the remnants of an applesauce container. She asked him if he wanted more, and the child asked for two more cups.
Her organization operates a food pantry that supplies fresh fruits, vegetables, bread and meats.
“I don’t know why there’s not a lot of food stores [in eastern Gainesville],” she said. “But we have a lot of people of all nationalities who are low-income that are in need, and we do need more stores over there.”
But where exactly is East Gainesville?
Ben Chumley, a senior planner at the Alachua County Growth Management Department, used 2010 US Census data and a study area map of what the county defines as East Gainesville to determine how many people live there.
According to the US Census, the Gainesville’s 2010 population was 124,354. Chumley said in an email that, within the study area, about 46,000 people live in East Gainesville.
The census areas Chumley used to determine East Gainesville’s population do not correspond exactly to the study area, he said, but they provide a reasonably accurate approximation. The 46,000 number also includes some unincorporated spots in Alachua County, he said.
East Gainesville is a lower-income area, but “there’s still a whole bunch of people out there,” said Steven Kirn, the executive director of the David F. Miller Retailing Education and Research Center at the University of Florida.
“Even if they don’t have as much money on a per-capita basis, collectively there’s a lot of money to be mined there,” he said.
Kirn believes that opening a store like Walmart Marketplace – essentially a Walmart that only sells grocery items – would be a good fit in East Gainesville. He has seen them successfully implemented in urban areas like Chicago and Detroit.
“I think there is a place for a grocery store – if not a Publix-style supermarket – that would give people access to fresh food on an accessible kind of basis, and because Walmart is big they can do it at a fair price,” Kirn said.
Alachua County and the City of Gainesville are trying to revitalize the area known as “East Gainesville” by increasing opportunities for investment such as supermarkets there, said Edgar Campa-Palafox, the Alachua County economic development coordinator.
Plan East Gainesville is a 2003 community planning study funded by Alachua County, the City of Gainesville, the Florida Department of Transportation, Gainesville Regional Utilities, and the Gainesville Urbanized Area Metropolitan Transportation Planning Organization.
The study confirmed that the population of East Gainesville has been declining, along with economic growth, since the 1960s, when Interstate 75 was developed to the west, while West Gainesville benefited from the interstate and grew economically.
Campa-Palafox said the plan aims to bring sustained revitalization to East Gainesville by expanding housing choices, improving transportation and increasing options for commerce all while retaining the unique character of the area.
One measure is moving the Alachua County Fairgrounds on Northeast 39th Avenue and Waldo Road to make room for private investments, Campa-Palafox said.
The Gainesville Community Redeveloping Agency is also working to revitalize the east side. Its efforts include the Kennedy Homes renovations and GTEC, the Gainesville Technology Entrepreneurship Center.
Other plans to transform East Gainesville from a food desert into something closer to a food oasis like West Gainesville include efforts to move a farmers market there.
Another is the Alachua County Farm to School Program, said Kathleen Pagan, the senior planner in Alachua County’s growth management department.
“The school system is one way to address good health,” she said.
“Do I think there’s an opportunity in East Gainesville? Absolutely,” Kirn said.
Do I think somebody’s going to be the one to take the risk to do it? I don’t know.”