2009_02_february_cover_200Main Street Journal
February 2009
p. 9

Some have recently argued that Memphians living in some of the city’s poorest areas have essentially no access to healthy food. The limited food products available in these neighborhoods are “processed with high levels of sodium and high fructose corn syrup,” contributing to epidemics of “Type 2 Diabetes, Strokes, Heart Disease and Obesity.”

“There has been a market failure, and it is causing a health care crisis,” writes blogger Frank Burhart (polardonkey.blogspot.com), a graduate of both Rhodes College and the University of Memphis.

Burnhart’s signature issues are social inequality and wealth distribution, and his blog posts are frequently illustrated by maps he creates using geographic information system (GIS) software.

To punctuate his argument about the unequal distribution of healthy food access points around the Memphis area, Burnhart plotted grocery stores and liquor stores and overlaid them with maps of zip codes by population, median household income and food stamp recipient totals.

Burnhart discovered three poor zip codes in particular – 38106, 38107 and 38108 – that combined for a total of 18 liquor stores but not a single major chain grocery store, Easy Way or Save-A-Lot. These he contrasted with the wealthy Cordovan zip code of 38018, which contained four grocery stores and only two liquor stores. By his calculations, the ratio of people to liquor stores was markedly different, as well, with twice as many liquor stores per capita in the poorer areas.

These findings led Burnhart to the conclusion that the city of Memphis had it in for poor people and that “local government should step in and regulate food sales / distribution.”

There are some problems with Burnhart’s analysis. For one thing, he under-represents the population in 38018 by at least half, meaning the ratio of people to liquor stores would actually be four times larger in Cordova. But that’s only if you accept his assertion that there are only two area liquor stores, when a cursory web search reveals at least five. Additionally, Google lists some 28 grocery stores in 38107 alone, and while many of these are actually dilapidated convenience stores without much selection, there’s at least one Save-A-Lot (999 Jackson Ave), though Burnhart specifically claimed there were none.

Still, the overall thrust of his point remains unanswered: is our society trying to starve and mistreat poor people, keep them sick and inebriated?

Much more likely, it’s a problem of simple economics. Store owners, shareholders and investors build and maintain stores in safe locations where they can turn a profit and sell as many products as possible, not in areas where the crime rate is out of control and the residents can’t keep them in business. Would you rather open a store in a zip code with a median household income of $74,000 or $22,000?

But if an abundance of liquor stores is any indication, it must be profitable to run some businesses in these areas. So we’re left to wonder what would happen if Tennessee reformed its wine and liquor laws to allow grocery stores to sell these items, as they do in 18 other states. Perhaps that’s one way major chain grocery stores could be enticed to do business in impoverished areas, sparing us all of more government regulation.