You Can’t See the Food Desert for the Trees

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My friend lives on the tree streets in Bangor, near Eastern Maine Medical Center. If you’re not familiar with Bangor, the tree streets, named for trees, define a desirable section of the city, a neighborhood of shaded backyards, where you can walk your dog to a park down the street past a mixture of single-family homes and rentals.

My friend and her husband would like to get rid of one of their cars. But they both have jobs. And despite living in one of the better parts of town, they find themselves stranded when it comes to basic services.

“How do you go grocery shopping without a car?” she asked me recently. “I live in a food desert. The nearest grocery stores are all about three miles away. And there’s no convenient bus you can take to any of them.”

A quick glance at Bangor’s geography proves her point. Though the neighborhood is dotted with what I call “beer stores,” there’s no place nearby to purchase produce, meats, grains and spices to cook tonight’s dinner. The nearest grocery stores are the Hannaford on Broadway, the Hannaford at the Bangor Mall, and the Shaw’s on Main Street.

“There’s no real food within easy reach of bus or bicycle,” my friend says. “I’m stuck in a walking neighborhood with two cars.”

To get to the Hannaford on Broadway, my friend would have to meet the incoming Old Town bus on State Street, change to the Center Street bus downtown, and then repeat the process in reverse with groceries. A trip to Shaw’s would likewise require two buses, the Old Town and the Hampden bus, which no longer runs on Saturdays. To get to the Hannaford at the Mall, she would need to walk several blocks to and from Mount Hope Avenue.

All three are reachable, with some effort, on a bicycle, but grocery shopping by bike requires some sturdy containers and limits the amount of food you can bring home.

When I lived alone without a car, I rented an apartment on Ohio Street and took the Capehart bus up to the Hannaford on Union Street. One reason I picked the place was that it lay on a convenient bus route. The decision to live without a car involves many choices, including location.

I also tried to shop at stores within a small radius of my home, although this was not always possible. It’s surprising how far you may have to go for an ink cartridge or a cantaloupe. I bought bread at local bakeries and meat and vegetables at the farmers’ market. (Beer, needless to say, was never a problem.)

But my friend’s conundrum raises an interesting question, independent of whether or not her neighborhood is adequately served by the bus. Why has it become next to impossible to buy real food anywhere but a supermarket? What has happened to drive neighborhood grocery stores into extinction? Why does it seem so hard for small, pedestrian-oriented stores to stay in business?

You can hardly fault the bus system for not linking all neighborhoods conveniently to grocery stores. The dominance of large stores pushes people into cars, even if they want to walk, bus and bicycle more. Those stores are always surrounded by large parking lots off major traffic avenues, where parking is free and everything is geared to the car. There’s a drive-through ATM nearby, and a drive-thru Dunkin’ Donuts and a drive-thru Taco Bell. Every economic incentive encourages businesses to cater to car customers. We design and build our cities on an automotive rather than a human scale.

People who use the bus to do their grocery shopping not only have to make more frequent trips to the store, on each trip they’re helping to pay for people who drive there. Shaw’s and Hannaford pay to keep up their parking lots, and a bit of that cost gets passed along to every customer. But bus passengers, pedestrians and bicyclists don’t need parking spaces. Why should they pay for them?

Incentives that steered people in the other direction – away from their cars rather than into them – might include discounts on groceries with a monthly bus pass, and subsidies for smaller neighborhood stores.

My friend speaks wistfully of opening a small neighborhood market and offering cooking classes in conjunction with it. Would such an idea take off? Who knows? Evidence suggests it would be difficult. It’s easier to go to the drive-thru for a burger and leave the shopping for the weekend. It’s also a preposterous way to live. Food for thought.

Hank Garfield

About Hank Garfield

Hank's writing has appeared in San Diego Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Downeast, Bangor Metro, and elsewhere. He is the author of five published novels, and is now seeking a publisher for his recently-completed novel, A Sprauling Family Saga.