Anyone who has spent time downtown is aware of the veritable food desert that spans the breadth of the Holy City. Residents of downtown Charleston have very few choices when it comes to groceries and other essentials. This has led to the rising popularity, more recently among students, of local corner stores. Charleston is deeply dependant on its corner stores and seemingly always has been. Nearly all of the stores that Charleston’s residents wander in and out of have been there for 40 years or more. Everyone loves their neighborhood corner store – the problem is that they are quickly becoming the only places to buy food.
The term “food desert” has recently been popularized in the national and local news. The Post and Courier ran a series in April of this year about the lack of food availability in downtown Charleston. Awareness and conversation have increased, but matters have only gotten worse since the series ran. More grocery stores closed down, specifically the Bi-Lo on Meeting Street, and the desert got drier. It seems that everyone is talking about food gentrification, but no one is doing anything about it.
Students and those lower on the socioeconomic scale are most affected by the lack of availability to healthy food. One student said, “It’s impossible to go grocery shopping. I live in the dorms…I don’t have a car. It’s not realistic.” But what is the alternative?
In an interview with Nazeer Shaik, the owner and operator of Knight’s Market on Hanover Street, spoke on the issue of food gentrification. “Especially on Sundays, [my store] is people’s main source of food,” he said. Knight’s Market, which also has fried chicken and pizza counters, has been a staple of the East Side for 40 years now. Mr. Shaik has owned the store for only a year, but he is not new to the troubles that stores like his store face. “Six to eight percent of people steal. Theft is a problem.” Mr. Shaik also spoke of the fights and mischief he must deal with in his store on a daily basis. When asked if he thought that the area in which the store is located contributed to the theft and violence, he answered a resounding “Yes.”
We can’t always help where we live, where we can afford to shop and who our neighbors are. A large majority of Charleston’s corner stores are located in the less affluent parts of town, reflecting the widening of the food availability gap. Some small stores, like The Spot 47 on Cooper Street, try to make things easier by offering full meals late into the night. The menu at this lovely late night hangout offers everything from single beers to homemade soul food, cheeseburgers and pulled pork sandwiches. Deborah and Frank Powell have owned The Spot for 64 years. It is an excellent example of why people don’t feel the need to go to a grocery store. Places like The Spot and Knight’s Market are much more convenient than the less accessible grocery stores, but they don’t offer the same fresh ingredients. Corner stores are for beer and snacks; they were never intended to be a sole source of food. It is infinitely cheaper to buy ingredients and cook at home than it is to buy every meal out, so students and those struggling to make rent find themselves paying more for food than if they grocery shopped.The problem is that it’s no longer a choice.
Mr. Shaik said that 20 percent of his entire business is food stamps. This poses an important question: if 20 percent of his customers can’t afford food at a corner store, how can they possibly be expected to meet Harris Teeter’s prices? Not just that, but how are they expected to get the groceries home? The CARTA bus drivers get frusturated when you ask them to wait while you make four trips up three flights of stairs.
One of the groups directly affected by food gentrification in Charleston is college students. Charleston is a college town and students inhabit every corner. Mr. Shaik’s store is over a mile from campus, yet he says that over 10 percent of his business is college students.
That number gets much larger the closer to campus you get. For example, an employee at King Street Station said that college students make up “probably 70 to 80 percent” of their business. Everyone has been to King Street Station at least once, and most College of Charleston students use it as their staple for snacks and beer. “[Food gentrification] is a big problem here,” they said. “I feel like a lot of people come here looking for certain things when they should be at a grocery store.” But which one? The Harris Teeter, located on the busiest section of East Bay Street? The Food Lion that is way up King Street, two miles from campus, and notoriously understocked? There are no good options for downtown residents that don’t have a car.
Another student at the College of Charleston bemoaned the lack of access to healthy food. “Even if you can get to Harris Teeter, when do students have time? Why go get a salad and take an hour when you can grab a bag of chips in the corner store for less money and take five minutes?” She has a salient point. Eating out is a whole culture in Charleston. We are known for our restaurants and our food, so eating out is extremely popular among students. There are pitfalls to this culture though – eating out is notoriously unhealthy, because people don’t make the same food choices at a restaurant as they do at home. This applies to corner stores as well: if there are six rows of candy, coolers full of beer, a freezer full of ice cream and five old, sad bananas on the counter, which would you go for?
What can we do about this? As an individual, you can support local fresh markets, like the farmer’s market at Marion Square every Saturday morning that runs from April through November. Healthy, fresh options and quick, convenient sources like corner stores once coexisted downtown, and perhaps they can again. Food deserts are a relatively new phenomenon. There has always been an issue around food access but it’s accelerated lately. In the last twenty years, downtown Charleston has lost half a dozen grocery stores.
For every grocery store that Charleston loses, there are several corner stores still chugging along. There’s a conflict between wanting more grocery stores and fresh food and loving the corner store culture of Charleston. But it is possible for the residents of Charleston to have their cake and eat it too, perhaps literally. Gaining access to fresh food would not be as detrimental to corner stores as you think. These stores have stood the test of time, and they aren’t going anywhere any time soon—and no one wants them to. Access to fresh food and corner stores are not mutually exclusive. When the employee of King Street Station was asked if they thought that more grocery stores in town would take away from their business, they said, “No, people will always need cigarettes and something to drink and they want it fast and they want it now. That’s what we’re here for.”
In this country and time, people want things fast and they want them when they want them and no later. We live in a culture of instant gratification, and corner stores provide that. As a society, we are at a crossroads. It’s time to decide what’s more important when it comes to our health and nutrition: getting it fast or getting it right. We all love places like Verde and Caviar and Bananas, but who is going to win out in the long run? Who will most likely withstand the test of time, despite gentrification? We seem to be trending towards two polar extremes: eating “high quality” food at sit-down restaurants, where that quality could be called into question, or snacking on corner store goods.
Citizens may also have more control over this exchange than we think. Simply talk with the manager or owner of the local corner store and ask them what it is you’re looking for and if they could possibly order it. More often than not, the answer is yes. The owners of these businesses have managed to keep their doors open so long by accommodating their customers and evolving with the times. Corner store owners want to keep their store and their job just as much as anyone else, and that means catering to customers. “I love my job,” said Mr. Shaik. Tom Scerbo, a former student and resident of Charleston, said “I honestly don’t know what I would do without corner stores. I think I would starve.” When asked how often he went to Harris Teeter for groceries, he answered “Maybe once a month.”