When West Capitol Hill resident Erlinda Davis drives to the supermarket, she takes the neighborhood with her - or at least as many residents as can fit in her Subaru wagon. It's her partial solution to the absence of a grocery store in the downtown district. She never goes grocery shopping alone.
"I don't know what I'd do if Erlinda didn't take us to the grocery store. We've got age upon us, and we can't drive" says Twila McEwen, 82, speaking of herself and her 94-year-old husband. They've relied on Davis' grocery carpool for 10 years. "There's a 7-Eleven on the corner, but prices are high."
The area has recovered from the 1970s, when it was considered a borderline slum by many, but still struggles to attract a grocer. It's part of a national trend called "the grocery gap." There are a third fewer supermarkets in low-income neighborhoods than middle-class or affluent ones because grocery retailers find the customer base less attractive, according to a study by the Food Marketing Policy Center at the University of Connecticut.
Inner-city neighborhoods, such as West Capitol Hill, often have a few convenience stores with a small selection of processed foods but limited access to fresh produce, causing some public health advocates to worry about the diets of those who cannot afford to own cars and drive to grocery stores. Grocery shopping for low-income residents can require carrying bulky bags on the bus or taking an expensive taxicab ride to the store, leaving many to opt for buying food from mini-marts or fast-food chains.
Community activists have tried organizing a farmers market or a small food cooperative in West Capitol Hill without success, but now an effort by Salt Lake City's Redevelopment Agency might bring in the Holy Grail: a grocery store.
The agency is in the final stages of selling a vacant lot on 300 West between 500 and 600 North to Salt Lake City developer Howa Capital. Howa has plans for a mixed-use development, dubbed Marmalade, that would include condominiums and space for retailers, such as a bank, coffee shop, dry cleaner and grocer.
Dru Damico, director of development for Howa, says no leases have been signed but there are a few prospective grocery tenants, including Sun Flower Market, a small Colorado-based grocery chain run by the founders of Wild Oats with a focus on keeping prices low.
"We're not looking to create a high-end destination," although the Marmalade development will have upscale elements, Damico says. "In West Capitol Hill, you have some of the highest incomes in this city and some of the lowest. This [development] will be available to everybody."
Damico says Howa is waiting for the zoning on the land to be changed from commercial to both residential and commercial, but he expects the company to break ground this summer. A grocery store could open in the neighborhood as soon as spring 2007, Damico says.
"We're really excited about that. We're hoping someone will come along and say, 'Yeah, we'll do it; we'll come into the neighborhood,' " says Davis, who has lived in West Capitol Hill since 1968, staying through some rough years because she wanted to help the elderly in the area.
Davis, a member of the Capitol Hill Community Council, says there are many residents who take neighbors without cars to the grocery store, as she does. If the store is built, it would be within walking distance for McEwen and many others.
"In order to make progress toward a walkable community, a grocery store is . . . a critical element," says Dave Oka, director of Salt Lake City's Redevelopment Agency. "We've felt for a very long time that that is a missing component in the West Capitol Hill area."
A study prepared last year for the agency by the Center for Green Space Design found that 80 percent of West Capitol Hill residents cited the lack of access to healthful food as a major concern.
The Salt Lake City nonprofit recommended a number of actions, including organizing a farmers market and forming small cooperative buying clubs, which allow members to have food delivered in bulk from a wholesaler at below-retail prices. But those initiatives require more involvement from neighborhood residents, says Christie Oostema, director of the Center for Green Space Design.
Oostema still hopes to get a farmers market in the neighborhood and says the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food has agreed to help. But competition to bring farmers to open markets is stiff because the state does not have enough producers to meet consumer demand, says Richard Sparks, the agency's farmers market liaison.