What can be done to fill the Eastside's grocery gap? 

Goodbye, Bi-Lo

click to enlarge The Bi-Lo on Meeting Street is set to close in October, leaving behind a significant void in food options for those in the surrounding community

Dustin Waters

The Bi-Lo on Meeting Street is set to close in October, leaving behind a significant void in food options for those in the surrounding community

Soon all that will be left in the Bi-Lo will be the sale signs. Following the announcement that the Meeting Street grocery store plans to close its doors Oct. 5, customers continue to slowly pick up whatever discounted items they can as the store liquidates its remaining stock. Over their heads in each aisle hang signs bearing the names of downtown streets. Along Spring Street, you'll find candy and cookies. Calhoun Street contains greeting cards and cake mix. King Street is where they keep the detergent. In between the mellow pop songs that play over the store's speakers, you hear the occasional announcement intercut with snippets of a cover of working-class anthem "9 to 5," but the lyrics have been changed to better reflect the Bi-Lo experience.

"Prices are down, down, down. Help me cut the cost of living," sings an upbeat woman doing her best Dolly Parton impersonation.

Bill Scales, district manager for Southeastern Grocers of Jacksonville, Fla., called the decision to close the downtown store "difficult, yet necessary." Southeastern Grocers, parent company of Bi-Lo, took over the former Piggly Wiggly location in 2013 in a $35 million deal that included 22 supermarkets in South Carolina and Georgia. Recognizing the significance of replacing a store that had been in operation for more than 50 years, then-president and CEO of Bi-Lo Holdings R. Randall Onstead took the time in October of 2013 to pen a letter to the Post and Courier, assuring locals who were concerned about the change that Bi-Lo looked forward to meeting the high standard set by the Piggly Wiggly. Three years later, Scales found himself in the same position of trying to comfort shoppers.

"We are proud of our history in this community, and it's been our pleasure to serve our customers there. We look forward to continuing to provide great service and value to our customers at our 17 remaining stores in the Charleston community," wrote Scales in a statement released following news of the closure. "Our associates are always the first to know of any changes at our stores and have been made aware of the closure, and are encouraged to apply for the many open positions we have in our network of neighboring Bi-Lo stores."

As the store's employees begin to look elsewhere for options, so too must the customers who have relied on the local supermarket and pharmacy. Barbara Furby, a resident of Market Street's Canterbury House (a nonprofit senior living facility offering affordable housing), says she makes the trip to Bi-Lo because she finds it to be less expensive than other nearby shops. For Furby, the loss of the supermarket is only going to make it more difficult for those low-income workers and students who populate the surrounding neighborhoods to access the goods they need. She remains skeptical about what will replace the Bi-Lo, even as the city sets forth plans following its closure.

click to enlarge DUSTIN WATERS
  • Dustin Waters

Announced last week, Mayor John Tecklenburg met with community leaders to develop a three-point plan, the first step of which includes partnering with Lowcountry Street Grocery, a mobile farmers market operating in Charleston, to assure that high-quality, affordable goods are available to Eastside residents. Organizers have yet to announce the full details of the arrangement, but Lowcountry Street Grocery did comment on their Facebook page about Bi-Lo's closure: "One thing that is so great about our model is the inherent ability to adapt and shift with both demand and need. Sadly, the closing of the Meeting Street Bi-Lo will, according to USDA definitions, designate most of East Side as an urban food desert. Upon full-time launch, we will immediately shift routes to accommodate. We got you."

In the second part of Tecklenburg's plan, he says the city is working with CARTA to create a shuttle service to transport former Bi-Lo customers from the store's former site to the Food Lion and CVS shopping center on upper King Street. Currently, those relying on public transportation to make the trip from Charleston's Eastside to the Food Lion can take a bus on CARTA's Route 20 for a charge of $2 each way.

In 2006, a group of California researchers published a study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine examining the impact of grocery store proximity on health and average body fat. That team found that those who rely on grocery stores more than 1.76 miles from their neighborhoods are more likely to have a greater body mass index than those who shop closer to home, but their findings didn't stop there.

"Most low-income households purchase food from supermarkets, which are associated with better-quality foods, but because many low-income people report making large food purchases once per month (45 percent getting rides with friends or relatives or walking), there may be greater reliance on neighborhood convenience stores to supplement perishable food items," researchers wrote. "Because food stamp recipients and the elderly cite that proximity and cost prevented them from shopping at supermarkets, neighborhoods with a greater population of poor and elderly may be more greatly affected by these smaller neighborhood grocery stores. In addition, because area (socioeconomic status) measures are associated with the density of fast-food outlets and the quality of restaurant foods ... neighborhood differences in BMI may be a result of neighborhood variance in the availability of other foods besides those found in grocery stores."

So looking ahead to better understand what may one day fill the hole left by Bi-Lo's departure, the city's plan also includes developing a series of "targeted incentives" to attract a new grocer to the property. Not only would landing another retail supermarket mean a continued source of goods for those who used to frequent the Meeting Street Bi-Lo, it could also preserve an affordable food option in the area that doesn't mean fast food or constantly picking up snacks from a convenience store.

A 1999 study published in the Journal of Consumer Affairs titled "Do the Poor Pay More for Food?" examined the effect that grocery store availability has on how much a family spends on food. What they found was that those who rely more on convenience stores and non-chain stores end up paying more for food on average than those who frequent chain grocery stores. The dilemma this creates is finding a balance between promoting small businesses and ensuring the community has a reliable source of affordable goods. In order to solve this issue, the authors of the study suggest that communities consider joint ownership or management of franchises by residents of disadvantaged neighborhoods and corporate owners. But where does the city come in?

"Public policies at the local and county level affect costs of locating new stores in different neighborhoods. Low real estate tax rates may not compensate for higher development costs or higher crime and security costs in some locations where there are few chain stores. Inadequate demand may also affect siting decisions," wrote the study's authors. "Local decision makers interested in increasing the access to chain store pricing to poor inner-city residents may need to think of alternative strategies to lure reluctant chain grocery stores into their communities. Ultimately, the question will emerge as to whether the inducements offered to attract such stores will generate sufficient price benefits to residents in the area to outweigh the costs incurred in such inducements."

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