The aftermath of the West Pike Street Kroger closure

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Recently, two Kroger locations in Clarksburg closed to make way for a brand new Kroger on Emily Drive. The company has stated that the downtown Kroger closure was due to a decline in sales and profitability over the past several years. But to many people who live in that area of town, the West Pike Street Kroger meant easy access to fresh food and prescriptions. One group that will be disproportionately affected is the elderly living in Koupal Towers.

Cranes and construction crew take down
Kroger signage on West Pike Street

“On this end of town, there’s a lot of people that use that store that walk there,” explained Bruce Baker, a resident at Koupal Towers, “I used it a lot. Now, we’ve gotta outsource to get our foods and it’s just hard for a lot of people to get around to try to get there. Some people use the bus system to get there, but then, you’re only allowed so much food on the bus.”

Koupal Towers is a ten-story public housing apartment building, owned and operated by the Clarksburg-Harrison Regional Housing Authority. According to their website, their mission is to ensure that safe, quality affordable housing opportunities exist for families of low to moderate income.

“My very first thought was, oh my word, what are these residents going to do?” said Sarah Knight, Public Housing Manager, “[It was] so easy for them to go to the grocery store. A lot of them don’t have cars.”

The question is then, how much do West Virginians actually control their food environment?

Joshua Lohnes, Food policy research director, wvu food justice lab

This end of town has gone through several changes over the past few years, which ultimately resulted in a lack of walkable food options. With West Pike Street Kroger shut down, the nearest grocery store, Price Cutter, is a mile and a half walk, with poor sidewalk access. Baker says he used to ride his power chair to Kroger, but he can’t take it to Price Cutter.

“Well, if the sidewalks in this town were a hell of a lot better, yes I probably would [ride my power chair to Price Cutter].” explained Baker, “Because I’ve been as far as the other side of town on it, but it’s just getting over the bad parts of the road is the problem.”

How bad are the sidewalks to Price Cutter? Watch us walk to Price Cutter from the former West Pike Street Kroger

The closure of the Kroger has thus created a food desert in that part of town. Britannica defines a food desert as “an impoverished area where residents lack access to healthy foods.” And the growing number of local grocery store closures across the state have caused food access problems not only in Clarksburg or Harrison County, but all across the state. A research team at West Virginia University has been created as a response to these problems, called the Food Justice Lab. Joshua Lohnes from the Food Justice Lab said one important thing to note about food deserts is that they’re not natural—they are produced by political and economic decisions made within the food industry.

“This is not just a Clarksburg issue. Over the last few years, we’ve traced the opening and closure of grocery stores, and also went in and looked at whether the stores were owned by businesses registered in West Virginia or businesses that are from outside West Virginia,” explained Lohnes, “What we’re seeing is a trend of a loss of West Virginia owned grocery stores and an increase in out of state food retailers coming in. So the question is then, how much do West Virginians actually control their food environment? And the idea is that a locally owned grocer would have more stake in remaining open even if it’s not maximizing profit because it’s there also as a communal service to others whereas a grocery store like Kroger that answers to its shareholders and the New York stock exchange is not actually accountable to the people of West Virginia who have come to depend on it.”

In terms of mitigating the problem in downtown Clarksburg, Delivery services like InstaCart are available in that area, but delivery fees and tips can tack on more than $4 to the cost of groceries. Taking the bus costs only 50 cents per ride, but according to Centra Bus, in order for folks to use the bus to get their groceries, they must limit what they buy to what they can fit on their lap and at their feet. 

Carry-on items are permitted, provided that they do not exceed what you can comfortably carry on the bus in one (1) trip.  These items are to be stored so that they do not interfere with other passengers.  We ask that you please keep track of your items.  Explosive, flammable, toxic, dangerous or offensive items that may cause harm or discomfort to any passengers are prohibited

Centra Bus Rider’s Guide

Food isn’t the only thing people at Koupal Towers needed from West Pike Street Kroger. Public Housing Manager Sarah Knight said when she talked to residents about how the change will affect them, a lot of them had their prescriptions at the Kroger. And now, the closest pharmacy is Byard Mercer Pharmacy—a little more than twice the walk away.

“The prescriptions, that’s such a big deal. What if you run out of medicine?” said Knight, “What if you’ve forgotten that you were running out, and you’re on your last pill for that day, and you have to try and scurry and rush around to try and figure out how you’re going to get that prescription filled [and] who’s going to take you?”

Several studies over the past months, like one from The Brookings Institution, have expressed concern for growing senior hunger during the course of the pandemic, as older people are more likely to require special diets or even just be afraid to get out during the pandemic. Even just on an isolation level, Knight said having a place to walk to and visit like Kroger helps to keep a sense of normalcy.

“It’s definitely not a small thing. It’s definitely changing the way that they live and the way that they get their groceries.”

Sarah Knight, public housing manager, clarksburg-harrison regional housing authority

“I think COVID has caused such an issue with our residents that just adding [the Kroger closure] to it has, I’m sure, added insult to injury, so to speak,” said Knight, “I think it’s just been hard for them with the pandemic, let alone their nearest grocery store going out of business, so it’s just a struggle all the way around.”

Baker said he’s not concerned with going hungry, but he’s going to have to rely on his other friends in the building.

“Because, if I can’t get out, maybe some of my neighbors are going out that drive and don’t mind picking up a few things here and there. We gotta try to help each other, that’s the thing,” Baker said. “Like I said, I’m surprised that they actually did close down or at least not try to keep it open because personally myself, I know there’s a lot of foot traffic by that store down there. I see it when I go to the store because I’m there two to three times a week.”

The past few years, the Food Justice Lab has been studying what could be done to ensure that West Virginians across the state have access to healthy foods—and Lohnes says part of the problem is that corporations have a lot of citing power.

“There’s no democratic process. There’s no transparency. For all we know, Kroger was actually turning a profit but not enough of a profit,” explained Lohnes, “And that’s where, to me, it gets a little problematic that they would have the power to disappear. In McDowell County, we talked a lot about the Walmart that opened up and put a lot of other retailers out of business, and then 14 years later, it closed. So what are the long term consequences of structuring our food economy this way?”

So, maybe the people living at Koupal Towers won’t starve, but all of this comes at a cost to these people’s independence at a life stage where independence can already be hard to find.

“I’ve heard them talk about how it’s going to be a struggle to change their routine for getting groceries. A lot of them would go 2-3 times a week because it was super easy for them to just walk and come back and now they’re going to have to reconfigure how they’re gong to get their groceries. Maybe once a week and have to call friends and family to assist them with a ride, so it’s definitely not a small thing,” Knight emphasized, “It’s definitely changing the way that they live and the way that they get their groceries.”

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