I submitted the following OpEd to a local news site in Oak Ridge in March and, since I have yet to receive a response, thought I would blog it as well…
There is a revitalized excitement in Oak Ridge these days. The news of new restaurants and retail stores coming to town seems to have produced a bounce in our collective step. The infamous Oak Ridge Mall appears to have a new future and work at the marina will undoubtedly enhance community life. But, in our excitement, let us not forget to consider the ramifications of our decisions.
Take the new Kroger Marketplace set to open sometime in 2014. There is a definite desire for a nicer, larger grocery store in town and it will bring greater access to areas north of Oak Ridge Turnpike. Additionally, the development will attract other shopping and dining options to the city. But what impact will its move have upon residents of the neighborhoods behind it be, specifically those living in the Scarboro community. This area is listed by the USDA as low-income and low-access, meaning a significant amount of residents live more than 0.5 mile from the nearest supermarket. While this does not seem to be a huge deal in this age of cars, there are members of this community that likely walk to buy their food, especially with the lack of public transportation. To complicate the matter further, food prices continue to escalate, especially those considered nutritious, which places an even greater burden upon the finances of our low-income neighbors.
In conversations I have had recently with friends and coworkers that live in Oak Ridge, I have come to the conclusion that a community food policy or plan does not exist that informs decision makers on the City Council, Planning Commission, and in the City Manager’s office of impacts such as what I discuss above. It is my understanding that Kroger is actively pursuing a new tenant for its current home to avoid leaving it empty, but there is little guarantee that it will be another grocery store. Instead of a “wait and see” mentality, I propose that we proactively look for a solution that not only improves access to Scarboro and the other surrounding neighborhoods, but that also provides healthy, affordable foods in innovative ways. One potential solution is revising land-use policies along Tuskegee that would allow a smaller grocer to locate. This store could be an outlet of a larger chain, such as Food City or Kroger, in order to benefit from economies of scale and other efficiencies related to size. Additionally, bringing a Farmers Market on an additionally day at the Scarboro Community Center could provide local agriculture with a new market and bring nutritious foods to the community.
These are just ideas. Ideas to get a conversation started in the community. I believe it will take more than one individual’s hypotheses to create solutions. Instead, it will take the entire community realizing that we need to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.