Brad McElhinny: West Virginia's hunger for grocery stores

TOM HINDMAN/DAILY MAIL
Green Grocer in Alderson opened to alleviate a void of fresh meat and produce in that community.
Brad McElhinny is editor of the Charleston Daily Mail. Reach him at bradmc@dailymailwv.com or 304-348-5124.

As Charleston residents wish and pray for a Trader Joe's — the unicorn of the grocery world — plenty of West Virginia communities can't take for granted having a grocery store at all.

“Clay County's last grocery store closing” was the alarming headline on the Hur Herald, an online news outlet that covers that part of central West Virginia.

Fortunately, there was an update that also served as a sigh of relief.

“Saved,” the update declared.

A new owner had stepped in to run the Piggly Wiggly on Main Street, restocking the shelves that earlier were reported to be increasingly bare.

There was an even more dramatic grocery store crisis in St. Marys, Pleasants County.

Last Saturday, The Galaxy Food Store caught fire, probably because of a faulty compressor near the freezer section, and was declared a total loss. There were no injuries, but the community was certainly harmed.

There's another grocery store in St. Marys, but options are limited now for consumers.

“Anytime you have a fire at this magnitude involving just a few grocery stores, it will have an impact,” St. Marys Mayor Paul Ingram told MetroNews.

Earlier this month, the small town of Alderson in Greenbrier and Monroe counties celebrated its new grocery store, Green Grocer.

Alderson had been without a grocery store since Gadd's IGA closed last fall. About 1,200 residents were left with no options but to drive to Lewisburg or Hinton for fresh produce and meat.

Residents started a fundraising effort to help Green Grocer, which had been a local co-op, expand into a grocery store.

As Green Grocer opened, shoppers were pleased to have a local option.

“They're just tickled to death to not have to leave town to shop anymore,” Ann Knott, one of two part-time employees at the store, told the Daily Mail's Matt Murphy.

Unfortunately, lack of access to fresh, healthy and affordable food is enough of a problem that there's a term for it: food deserts (not to be confused with a food dessert).

The U.S. Department of Agriculture keeps track of them and estimates that 23.5 million people across the country live in food deserts. More than half of those people (13.5 million) are low-income.

The very term “supermarket” provides a hint about this phenomenon. As rural areas become even more rural, market forces select against investments in those communities. With fewer conveniences like grocery stores, even more people move out.

For those who suspect they might live in a food desert, USDA has a handy locator. Of course, you probably know better than the feds do if there's no grocery store for miles around.

In West Virginia, USDA's map shows a big swath through the central part of the state, including Clay County, as mentioned above, plus its neighbors like Roane, Calhoun and Lewis counties. There's another swath across the eastern highlands, including Pocahontas and Pendleton counties.

Local farms and farmers markets contribute to making up that gap. Unfortunately, fast food joints and convenience stores also step in to help. This is meaningful in a state where the obesity rate is the highest in the nation at 35.1 percent.

Food deserts are disheartening enough when you read about them as an abstract concept.

But when you read the real-life details about the Piggly Wiggly in peril in Clay, the burned out Galaxy Food in St. Marys and the extraordinary effort to get a Green Grocer in Alderson it brings home not just how many West Virginia families live on the edge — but how many communities do too.

If only a solution could be found as easily as reaching up on a shelf.

Brad McElhinny is editor of the Charleston Daily Mail. Reach him at bradmc@dailymailwv.com or 304-348-5124.

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