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M.L. Schultze digs deeply into stories which help us to give you a better understanding of serious social issues and the greater impacts they have.

StarkFresh Hopes to Create an Oasis in a Food Desert

a drawing of the grocery store
The rendering of the grocery store in the 400 block of Cherry Avenue NE includes space for plenty of fresh foods and a grab and go cafe.

It’s been decades since people in southeast Canton have had easy access to a grocery store. Next month, that changes.

The effort to plant a new seed in the food desert has been both hampered and boosted by the pandemic.

The urban renewal of the late '60s cut through what had been Canton’s thriving African-American neighborhood. Cherry Street, people called it--thirteen blocks of record stores and restaurants, barbershops and bakeries, pharmacies and funeral homes, brothels and gambling houses and grocery stores. Taking their place was an overpass and a bridge now, some note ironically, named for Martin Luther King, Jr.

photo of Panther Purlin
Credit M.L. Schultze / WKSU
Buses can get Panther Spurlin from her home in the Jackson-Sherrick project to Walmart, Giant Eagle, Marc's and Save-a-Lot. But the routes each require multiple transfers and a commitment of two-plus hours.

Panther Spurlin is too young to remember the old neighborhood. But she lives with the dynamics of what replaced it. Every week, she maps out a trip to the grocery store, usually by bus.

“Before I moved back from Chicago, I looked up the areas of where they do low-income housing and it’s all in one area (of Canton). And once you go over the bridge, we have nothing,” she said. “I mean even the Save-a-Lot we have on Southgate, it’s still me getting on this bus and then getting on the 114 to get on that bus.”

Walmart, Giant Eagle, Marc’s -- all require a minimum 2 1/2 hour commitment. And if you’re a sale shopper, Spurlin said, it takes a day to plan and execute.

That’s why Spurlin has joined the effort to plant a grocery store -- albeit on the other side of the bridge, but just two blocks north of Canton’s bus hub.

Transforming an old appliance store
It’s taking shape in a 100-year-old appliance store -- part of the food justice campus of a nonprofit called StarkFresh. StarkFresh opened the campus last year to add to mobile food markets and other food outreach it’s been doing since 2012. It includes a commercial-grade kitchen people can rent for ventures ranging from catering to soap-making. Downstairs is a new mushroom farm.

StarkFresh Director Tom Phillips says the store will feature a fresh foods section and a place where people can register. There will be a small grab-and-go cafe as well.

photo of new grocery building
The food justice campus of StarkFresh also offers a commercial-grade kitchen people can rent, meeting rooms for food agencies and a mushroom farm in the basement.

The creaky wood floors, tin-look ceiling, shelving and layout will be a kind of tribute to the African-American grocers wiped out by city planning when Route 30 cut through the neighborhood a half century ago.

“Let’s honor what was here before and say ‘maybe we need to go back to, not a simpler time, but … look to the past, tweak it to look forward to the future.’”

But like other nonprofits, StarkFresh got caught in the crisis of the present: the coronavirus. That disrupted grants and donations and stalled the renovation work done almost entirely by volunteers.The hoped-for store opening last month passed by.

A different funding model
So, StarkFresh looked to a different funding model -- a small-business, crowd-funded loan campaign aiming to raise $50,000.

The volunteer construction crews are back, prepping for a July opening. And, most importantly, the coronavirus did not disrupt the food supply itself. StarkFresh operates a set of urban farms and hoop houses in town and is starting its seventh year of mobile food trucks, which has helped it tap into the cheap, fresh food leftovers that are part of the wholesale food system.

“The biggest issue for grocery stores, supermarkets, whatever, is how do you get food at an affordable, wholesale rate so they can make some money on it to cover costs,” Phillips said. “We already have that figured out.”

photo of Eva Leigh Houghton and Tom Phillips
Eva Leigh Houghton and Tom Phillips say, given options and an affordable price, people will often pick healthy fresh food. The non-profit distributes 160,000 seed packets in Stark County each year so people can grown their own food.

StarkFresh does not give food away and its store will be open to anyone. But, Board President Eva Leigh Houghton said, it gives lower-income families a healthy food cost advantage they rarely have.

“You buy what you can afford. You have $10 over here so you can get 10 TV dinners for a dollar (each) or spend $3 for green peppers. So you’re going to gravitate to those dollar TV dinners.”

Seven green peppers for a dollar changes that decision.

Yet some of the limited space in the store will go to packaged foods. Phillips said that’s a lesson learned from the mobile trucks, when sales of fresh vegetables quadrupled after they started offering what Phillips calls ‘more junky groceries.’”

“It doesn’t make any sense, but you’re treating people like people and giving them options,” Phillips said. “And when… I can see that I can get pasture-raised organic chicken breast for $2 a package instead of $17 a package, I’m like, ‘Wow, I don’t need any chips, I’m going to spend all my money on meat because I can’t get it like that anywhere else.’”

What the pandemic revealed

a photo of Laurie Andress
West Virginia University's Laurie Andress said StarkFresh may be in a unique position to help lower income people devastated by the pandemic if its own resources are stable and it has enough in reserves.

Laurie Andress, a public health professor at West Virginia University, said the pandemic exposed even further divides in people’s access to food. For those with money “most policies, programs, interventions are going to fit. You’re going to be able to afford to order from Amazon. You’re going to be able to pay for groceries delivered to your doorstep.”

But people at the other end often don’t have those options. So if its own reserves are strong, Andress says StarkFresh may be in the right place at the right time.

Panther Spurlin, the woman who has made a science of calculating the distance from southeast Canton to food, said the effort is about something bigger. It’s”something to say they care, they hear us, they understand what we’re going through -- just a symbol that Canton’s not lost, over the bridge, it’s not lost.”

And if this works out, StarkFresh has plans for something bigger: A full supermarket over that bridge.

Additional information about StarkFresh and poverty and hunger in Stark County

What’s StarkFresh?
The nonprofit has been operating in Canton since 1983, emerging in 2012 with urban farms, mobile groceries, farmers markets and learning gardens. Click here for a map of the agency’s operations.

StarkFresh logo

Its vision includes “connecting growers, consumers and producers to help create a better food system that focuses on making locally sourced, nutrient-dense, and affordable foods available to everyone in Stark County.”

Last year, the agency opened a food justice campus in downtown Canton that includes a commercial-grade kitchen for entrepreneurs in the community to make and sell products ranging from food-grade soaps to soups. The campus on Fourth Street and Cherry Avenue NE also will include the grocery store expected to open in July and a gourmet mushroom farm downstairs.

StarkFresh also has taken over a closed preschool building in southeast Canton that it hopes to transform into a full supermarket.

The first phase grocery store is being funded through a crowd-sourced small business loan program via Honeycomb Credit.

What’s a food desert?
The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines a food desert as a place where people live more than a mile from a grocery store with healthy food. Food swamps are areas with a big concentration of junk and fast food operations.

Poverty and hunger in Stark County and Canton
The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates one-in-five children in Stark County are food insecure, meaning they do not have “reliable access to adequate food” year round.

Poverty statistics show nearly a third of Canton’s residents live in poverty. Nearly half of those under 18 live in poverty.

The southeast quadrant of Canton lost its grocery stores when construction of Route 30 cut through the largely African-American neighborhood. To replace the houses demolished by construction, the city built several housing projects including Jackson-Sherrick and Skyline Terrace (originally Highland Park).

Grocery options

Akron-Canton Foodbank logo

Grocery chains continue to operate in Canton, including Giant Eagle, Marc’s, Walmart, Aldi, Save-a-Lot and Fishers Foods. But the last grocery store on Canton’s near east side was a Fisher Foods that closed in 2018. The Akron-Canton Food Bank bought and demolished the old store and has begun work on an $11.6 million capital campaign.

Editor's note:  This story has been updated.