A “food desert” is one of those trendy labels meant to shame corporations for pulling out of less-than profitable locations. It’s officially an area, especially one with low-income residents, that has limited access to affordable and nutritious food. As long as we have Wal-Mart, we’re not technically a food desert, but the lack of an exciting grocery outlet makes things feel gritty.
Recently, I got into a Facebook discussion about the dearth of a “good” grocery store in Newton. I’ll throw Conover in there too, while we’re at it. It’s been years since we had an upscale grocery in town. There was a time when Newton had both a Lowe’s (the present location of People’s Bank headquarters) and a Harris Teeter (present location of Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market). Both had full-service delis and a seafood department and bakery, floral shop, and well, you know what I’m talking about. Nine times out of ten, the products featured in Sunday coupon sections were available to buy. They had great BOGOs (buy one, get one) offers and even buy two get three offers. It was fun to shop there.
Further back in time, it was possible for Newton residents to actually walk to a supermarket—the A&P on North Ashe, for one. Small grocery shops existed in residential neighborhoods years before that.
Lowe’s left by the early 1990s. Harris Teeter exited in 2007. Yes, it has been more than 10 years in this deserted place of ours. Ten years of bouncing around between Walmart and Food Lion and driving those extra miles to Aldi. Life feels a little more fragmented, a little less certain.
A neighborhood grocery store is more than a place to stock up. It’s home port, a gathering spot, a place you come to know, see your neighbors, recognize the friendly store associates. It feels like home. Since then, I think of a Charlotte trip as a place to stop at Trader Joe’s. A Pinehurst stay as a place to bring a cooler and stock up at the brand-new Harris Teeter stores (two of them). A trip through Winston-Salem as a thought—is there anything I need at Trader Joe’s?
I carry it a step further on vacation. One thing I try to do on a vacation (US or abroad) is to peruse a grocery store because it’s so telling about a culture. It’s amazing to see what people consider palatable. I still covet the excellent selections at the Tesco Superstore in Gloucester, England and the rather bizarre assortment of stock fish and overpriced Easter eggs at Bonus in Reykjavik, Iceland and the chunks of local gray salt for sale at Harmon’s in Salt Lake City. And then there’s Wegman’s in Virginia and Maryland, a Disney World approach to food retailing with themed cafes and every variation of anything you can imagine.
If I were on vacation in Newton, I would be sorely disappointed. We don’t have an amazing grocery to visit. Not even a funky little mom-and-pop store. Stocking up on provisions may be a genetic memory of when my ancestors trekked across the Atlantic and then by horse and wagon into the prairie grass of the Midwest. To them, going to the general store was a big deal. I spent my first seven years in an Illinois farming village with cattle grazing across the road. Going to “the store” was a daily affair—a short walk to Lockart’s general store with a post office in the back and barrels of salt herring by the counter and a Sunbeam bread box out front. The owners knew you by name and custom sliced your bologna, wrapped in white butcher paper.
Lockart’s carried all the essentials: bolts of yard goods, notions, overalls, nuts and bolts, coloring books, wrapping paper, writing tablets with movie stars on the cover, aspirin, canning supplies, penny candy and a cooler with underwater corral of soda bottles and a freezer with 5-cent Dixie Cups. All these necessities were housed in a storefront the size of H&W Drug.
Back then, life didn’t feel a food desert because I didn’t know that places like Harris Teeter and Harmon’s and Wegman’s existed, but now that I do, I will never be satisfied.