Most city and suburban dwellers take the convenience of a local grocery store for granted.
But many residents of Spanish Lake don’t have that luxury any more. When three nearby Shop ‘n Save stores closed in November, it left shoppers fewer options and created what the USDA classifies as a food desert.
Spanish Lake is in the northeast corner of unincorporated St. Louis County. The cities of Florissant and Ferguson are on its west side; the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers are on the east.
The population is just under 20,000 and has been shrinking for decades, while the poverty rate has increased.
Until recently, Spanish Lake residents had several options for grocery shopping. Three Shop ‘n Save stores located along the western edge of the community provided easy access to fresh, affordable produce.
In November, all three stores closed when parent company Supervalu decided to quit retail and focus exclusively on its wholesale business.
“Not many people are happy about the closures,” said Julie Griffith, president of the Spanish Lake Community Association. “You always saw a lot of people walking to the Shop ‘n Save.”
Griffith moved to Spanish Lake 19 years ago to shorten her commute to work at Christian Hospital. “Now, there is nothing there to walk to, to get food. If you don’t have transportation — which is a huge problem in this area — then you’re just out of luck.”
There is Metro bus service in the area, but it’s limited. According to a spokesman for Bi-State Development, the Metro Reimagined initiative could bring more frequent service and new routes to Spanish Lake, if the plan is approved later this year.
Driving to the Shop ‘n Save stores in search of bargains was not difficult for Gloria McGill, a retired Spanish Lake resident. With the loss of those stores, she is concerned about the lack of competition and choices. She also is worried about her neighbors.
“You know, I think about the people who don’t have transportation. It seems like it adversely affects the poor more than anyone else. When you don’t have major supermarkets, you’re limited to small stores, confectionaries, gas stations ... to get the things you need.”
Spanish Lake’s main thoroughfare, Bellefontaine Road, is lined with small, half-empty strip malls, a few gas stations and a couple of fast-food outlets. Family Dollar or Dollar General stores dominate; It seems there is at least one on every block.
“I don’t go to those small markets,” said Spanish Lake resident Janett Lewis. “They seem to serve up a combination of food, alcohol and cigarettes. So that doesn’t seem like a place we need to go in and get our family’s dinner.”
The lack of access to fresh, healthy produce and other food products defines a food desert. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s term for these areas is “low-income low-access” (LILA): when a high percentage of a population with low income lives one half mile or one mile from a supermarket.
According to the latest data published by the USDA in 2015, 56 percent of St. Louis City residents are living in LILA areas. For the larger metro region, 27 percent live in LILA areas.
“The closing of the three Shop’n Save stores inevitably has increased the number of residents living in LILA areas,” said Melissa Vatterott, Food and Farm director, Missouri Coalition for the Environment.
Vatterott said that access to grocery stores is about more than healthy food. “This issue of food access is a racial-equity issue. Not only are more black residents living in low-income, low-access communities than white residents, the majority of our black residents live in LILA communities.”
Vatterott added that 78 percent of Spanish Lake residents are black, and this latest grocery-store loss continues to widen the racial disparity in food access in north St. Louis County.
One short-term solution is to recruit the services of St. Louis MetroMarket, a nonprofit farmers’ market that sells fresh produce from a converted city bus to residents living in food deserts.
MetroMarket’s executive director, Lucas Signorelli, said the mobile market makes a couple of stops on its route in Moline Acres and Ferguson, near Spanish Lake. But the area was not on his radar until the Shop ‘n Save stores closed. “Maybe we can pick up some of the slack once our season starts back.”
MetroMarket’s season runs from April through November.
In the meantime, the Spanish Lake Community Development Corporation is looking for long-term solutions to challenges like food access.
The group’s chair, Lottie Wade, said many residents who have witnessed the loss of businesses and families are worried about the area’s future.
“It feels like we’re being abandoned. What are we going to do when we don’t have access to basic services? We pay our taxes, you know. Who’s looking out for us?”
In an unincorporated community without its own municipal officials, it’s up to Wade and other volunteers to lobby for the future of Spanish Lake and give residents a reason to remain and call it home.
Follow Melody on Twitter: @melodybird