Observe north Georgia’s lush, green hills, and one might think that the nearest desert must be hundreds of miles away. In reality, it could be right around the corner.
Last month, the Atlanta Daily World reported on the impact that one’s neighborhood can have on their health, noting that high-poverty communities are more likely to be located near environmental health hazards, contain fewer adequate healthcare facilities and have reduced access to fresh, nutritious foods. This last point is very true in Atlanta, where the phenomenon of “food deserts” can be frequently observed.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention define food deserts as “areas that lack access to affordable fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lowfat milk, and other foods that make up the full range of a healthy diet.” The limited availability of wholesome foods in these areas could lead to the development of diet-related illnesses like high blood pressure or diabetes.
Brother-sister duo Alphonzo and Alison Cross are working to eliminate the negative impact of food deserts with The Boxcar Grocer, a Castleberry Hill market that specializes in local, organic food.
The Cross siblings moved to the Atlanta area from California’s Bay Area two years ago, and The Boxcar Grocer has been open for a year and a half. Alphonzo Cross says that their desire to found the business came from an obvious need for fresh produce that he and his sister observed within the community.
“The closest grocery store at one point was a Publix off of MLK, and that closed,” Cross says. “What we were told is that the community really didn’t support that Publix, and so once that closed there became quite a void for proper food in this region of Atlanta. We’re the only natural foods anything for miles around.”
The Boxcar Grocer is located at the edge of a large food desert that encompasses much of downtown Atlanta, according to the USDA Food Access Research Atlas.
In Atlanta, the problem of food deserts correlates with both race and class. Most of Atlanta’s other food deserts can be found in the southeast and southwest of the city, areas with higher concentrations of both Black and low-income residents.
According to a 2010 study by the Atlanta Regional Commission, close to nine in ten of these areas had high access to fast food while just 53 percent of areas with large minority populations had access to fresh food.
In addition to making healthy food available in areas such as these, part of The Boxcar Grocer’s goal is to change perceptions on a variety of fronts.
“I’m hoping that we have been able to show Black youth that you can actually do something that affects social change but that is also financially successful as well,” Cross said.
One of The Boxcar Grocer’s sources of produce is the Truly Living Well Center for Natural Urban Agriculture, an Atlanta nonprofit dedicated to providing fresh produce to communities in need and educating local residents about food production.
“One of the building blocks of life and community is food,” says Rashid Nuri, Truly Living Well’s founder.
Nuri adds that though many Atlanta residents have poor access to healthy food, he has seen an improvement in access that has correlated to other positive changes like a decrease in crime rates and increases in property values.
Robby Astrove, a Steering Committee member of the Atlanta Local Food Initiative, can also attest to the change. He said he’s happy about the direction that the city is heading in.
“Atlanta is emerging as this incredible food progressive city,” Astrove said, pointing to the thriving urban agriculture scene, the community farms that continue to appear, and the fact that citizens’ understandings about food and where it comes from are evolving for the better.
Astrove is also one leader of the Concrete Jungle fruit foraging collective, a group that gathers unused produce and donates it to homeless shelters and food banks, and has recently started to plant food trees around town.
“Urban agriculture is economic redevelopment,” he said. “It’s really investing in the city at the community level.”
Despite being in business for less than two years, Alphonzo and Alison Cross’s success in the neighborhood has them already thinking of expansion. They are planning on opening a second store before the end of the year, and they eventually hope to work their way up to 400 stores nationwide.
“The food desert conversation is a conversation really, not about food at all. It’s a development conversation, it’s a community development conversation,” says Alphonzo Cross. By expanding their “convenient market” model into communities where a need is recognized, he and Alison hope to help put an end to that conversation once and for all.