Louisville has a fresh food problem. Can we fix it?

The Courier Journal's continued coverage of food insecurity in Louisville is supported by the University of Southern California Center for Health Journalism's 2018 National Fellowship.

Other stories in this series include:

Tell us: How do you get food where you live in Louisville?

Dare to Care relocation may bring job training, grocery to the West End

Shelby Park's Save-A-Lot closed with little warning to neighbors

Sorry, we're closed: How everyone is hurt when grocery stores shut down

In 30 seconds: What you should know about food deserts in Louisville

Tuition or food? How college kids use food pantries to help food insecurity

Louisville has a fresh food problem. Can we fix it?

'A real crisis in Louisville': Readers respond to food desert series

How a low-income Louisville neighborhood became a fresh food oasis

How can cities end food deserts? Here are 4 solutions that worked

Louisville families shouldn't be struggling to find fresh food

No grocery store in your neighborhood? Join forces to create one

People can't get to a grocery store easily. So these volunteers are driving them

Would you shop at a mobile grocery store? Kroger is betting on it 

Where You Live Determines How Much Your Eggs Cost at Kroger

How some residents get their food in Louisville's food deserts

Louisville's vacant grocery stores find new tenants. But they won't sell food

How these Louisville companies are helping employees buy affordable fresh produce

Can indoor farming fix food deserts? These Louisville students think so

Kentucky's hunger initiative earns national attention. But thousands still need food

Downtown Louisville is growing rapidly. So why doesn't it have a grocery store?

Is crime driving grocery stores out of Louisville's low-income communities?

Louisville kids are still at risk for lead poisoning. Here's how healthy eating can help

When will downtown Louisville get a grocery store? Here's what we found

Everything you need to know about Kroger's mobile grocery store in Louisville

Kroger's mobile market brings fresh food to Louisville neighborhoods without access

This nonprofit leader is giving west Louisville the black-owned grocery it 'deserves'


Editor's note: Across Louisville, more than 120,000 people are living with food insecurity, meaning they don't have reliable access to healthy, affordable food. The issue is linked to higher rates of illness and lowered life expectancy in predominantly low-income neighborhoods. And it's costing taxpayers in Louisville and around the nation millions of dollars in emergency health care.

In June 2018, Courier Journal reporter Bailey Loosemore received a six-month fellowship from the University of Southern California's Center for Health Journalism to learn how food insecurity affects Louisville and how the complex problems could potentially be solved.

This series addresses the local food insecurity crisis. This article looks at the city's response to the crisis and how the community as a whole can make long-term change. We also explain how food access issues arise and how they affect people of all backgrounds.

Growing up in western Louisville, Michael George hated grocery shopping.

The closest store to his home was at least 2 miles away, and when his family needed food, they'd load their arms with a month's worth of groceries that they struggled to carry back by bus. They called the trip "Grocery Store Saturday."

George despised it.

Now, as the director of after-school programming at Western Middle School for the Arts, George sees students facing the same difficulties he did. Last year, a Pic Pac near the Portland school closed after 35 years in business, and families that relied on it must now spend more time and money to get the food they need.

George knows his students have to eat healthily if they want to succeed. So he found a way to help them get vegetables easier: They'd grow them at school.

In 2017, George and a small group of students built a small aquaponics system that uses waste produced in a fish tank to grow vegetables in a connected bed. It's a sustainable operation that requires little upkeep, and the students see it as a way to end the city's food access crisis.


Since 2016, more than a dozen grocery stores have closed citywide, often abandoning neighborhoods that already had some of the worst options for fresh food.

Across Louisville, dozens of people think they have the answers — or at least part of them — to improving food access, proposing urban farmscommunity gardensa mobile market and a community-owned grocery store as potential solutions.

But while many groups are working to solve the multifaceted problem, some say the movement has been stifled by elected officials who are not open to supporting innovative change.

Over the past six months, the Courier Journal spoke to more than 60 residents, nonprofit leaders, health care providers and Louisville Metro employees about how inadequate food access affects our city and how it can be solved.

Several expressed frustration with Mayor Greg Fischer for not making a larger commitment to ending food insecurity, which affects people of different races, ages and employment status.

In 2016, more than 120,000 people living in Jefferson County were considered food insecure, meaning they did not have reliable access to affordable, nutritious food, according to data from Feeding America, a Chicago-based nonprofit.

"Why have we not made this more of an issue?" said Barbra Justice, an Old Louisville resident who volunteers for New Roots, a local nonprofit that connects residents to farmers. "Why have you not at least issued some sort of declaration or something that fresh food is a basic human right and that we've got to address this issue?"

In an interview with the Courier Journal, Fischer said three Louisville Metro departments are working together to identify long-term, sustainable solutions that the city could support.

But he acknowledges that most residents want traditional grocery stores, and there's only so much city leaders can do to convince businesses to open — or stay — in low-income areas.

"What you see here is for-profit businesses saying we can't make money anymore locating in this space," Fischer said. "So they're making an economic decision to close, and we're basically left picking up the pieces of all the people who have developed life patterns around one of the retail outlets that people are most intimate with. 

"It's a significant issue for us."

City Short-Sighted?

City officials say they got serious about addressing food access issues after the 2017 closure of a Kroger in Old Louisville, south of downtown.

The neighborhood has large populations of seniors and people with disabilities, and city leaders knew it'd be hard for residents to get to another store.

Some residents and advocates, however, say the city should have been involved in food access conversations sooner. If they had, they may have been better prepared to deal with the Old Louisville blow.

The city's food access issues didn't start in Old Louisville, and several reports have laid out how predominantly low-income, African-American neighborhoods have for decades been affected by an insufficient number of grocery stores.

A groundbreaking 2007 report from the Community Farm Alliance, a nonprofit based in Berea, Kentucky, discussed how structural problems within Louisville's food system prevented vulnerable residents from making healthy choices. The report also drew a correlation between lower access to groceries and higher rates of illnesses, such as diabetes and obesity.


In 2011, the city's Center for Health Equity, a division of the health department, further described how inadequate access to food, transportation, and health care can reduce the life expectancy for people living in impoverished areas in its first Health Equity Report. The center expounded upon its research in two follow-up reports.

Advocates say the city had made strides toward improving food access under former Mayor Jerry Abramson, who created a Louisville Food Policy Advisory Council in 2010 with funding from a $7.9 million federal stimulus grant.

The council included business and nonprofit leaders, wellness experts and members of the city's health department, who discussed policy changes that could lead to improvements in the city's overall health.

But once the grant money ran out, the council was disbanded. And the seeming disinterest from Fischer's administration has left a bad taste in some residents' mouths.

It's not that the city isn't trying, said Rebecca Fleischaker, deputy director of Louisville Forward, the local government's economic arm. It's just that the efforts have been largely unseen.

Since 2017, Louisville Forward has hired a firm to conduct a market study across the city, identifying the most viable properties for new stores. And employees have researched new models in other communities to see if they'd work here.

"I've never worked so hard on something for nothing to show for it yet," Fleischaker said. "I say yet because I do believe there will be something. I think we're close."

Some residents argue that city officials are too focused on recruiting conventional grocery stores to the city's core and aren't open to embracing solutions that come from citizens.

"There's a reluctance to look at innovation in a way that is rooted in the community," said Cassia Herron, a member of a group that hopes to open a community-owned grocery store in Louisville. "Innovation to them is technology, ordering food online. That's just one part of innovation."

Fischer said his administration is taking the problems seriously, but he cautioned it takes time to find solutions that can last.

As it stands, the Center for Health Equity, Louisville Forward and the Office of Resilience and Community Services are approaching the issue from different angles.

Outside of Louisville Forward's work, the Office of Resilience has partnered with the National Resources Defense Council to reduce food waste. And the Center for Health Equity has created teams that are each focused on root causes of health issues, including food and built environment.

The goal for each department is to identify solutions that can be sustainable.

"Part of what you're learning is all the failures of good-willed people trying to come up with solutions that don't work on a long-term basis," Fischer said. "It's hard to say I'm going to start a (cooperative grocery) and solve everything. Groceries are a complicated business.

"It's a big problem in search of a solution right now. We're diving in at all these different points, but for us to say we've got a solution to this — there's no city in our country that has a solution to this."

Investments in Innovation

Across Louisville, people are dreaming of new ways to get healthy food into communities that need it.

Could the University of Louisville develop a research grocery store where students test business practices while residents have a place to shop?

What if high school students taught seniors how to order groceries for delivery? Or if the city created a fund that could support stores willing to locate in underservered neighborhoods, similar to the Louisville Regional Airlift Development effort?

The ideas are lofty — but not impossible.

"One of the hardest things, I think, in a community with big, complicated problems that affect a lot of people, sometimes it's difficult even to get started," said Monique Kuykendoll Quarterman, who studied local food access as the 2018 hunger innovation fellow with the Community Foundation of Louisville.

Communities from Maryland to California have tested hundreds of different policies and programs that they hoped could pump fresh food back into the neighborhoods that grocery stores abandoned.

Some initiatives, like a virtual supermarket program that delivers food to low-income people in Baltimore, have proven successful. Others, like a nonprofit grocery store in Philadelphia, struggled to become sustainable and folded.

Dare to Care Food Bank executive director Brian Riendeau said he hopes to work with city leaders and business partners to see new solutions to fruition locally.

This year, the food bank plans to launch a mobile grocery store — similar to the Fresh Picks market that's proven successful in Milwaukee.

Picture a 100-foot tractor trailer outfitted with refrigerators and shelves that are stocked with fruits, vegetables, meat and dairy, Riendeau said.

"What it gets at is the reality that it's very hard for major grocery stores to invest in and operate grocery stores in certain markets," he said. "This accepts that reality and says, you know what, we've got another option. Instead of investing all that money in brick and mortar, we're going to invest in mobility."

Herron, president of the Louisville Association for Cooperative Economics, said brick-and-mortar stores can work — as long as they're owned by the community they serve.

Since 2015, Herron and a group of community members have researched cooperative grocery models with the goal of opening one in Louisville. Ideally, customers and employees would pool their resources to invest in the store, and they'd decide how it was stocked and operated.

"I think it could prove a lot of different things. Cooperative economics could really be a tool to access different services," in neighborhoods with limited access to basic needs, she Herron said. "The challenge is that our public agencies need to figure out how to support that kind of thing with innovative investment offerings other than tax incentives in an area."



New Roots founder Karyn Mosowitz said one thing the city can provide more of is money.

The nonprofit operates Fresh Stop Markets that sell shares of local organic produce on a sliding pay scale. In 2018, the nonprofit served 1,400 distinct families and operated on a $325,000 budget.

"A lot of other cities invest more in food justice than our city," Moscowitz said. "... We're kind of holding up this movement as a very viable, very successful movement that needs to grow. To grow, we need money, we need resources."

In its 2018-2019 budget, Louisville Metro Council awarded nearly $400,000 to six food-related nonprofits, including $270,000 to Dare to Care and $70,000 to New Roots.

The city also awarded more than $1.1 million to 15 community ministries that provide emergency assistance, including food, to residents citywide.

But the city doesn't have to be the only entity to fund food access projects. Quarterman, the hunger innovation fellow, said federal programs have distributed more than $320 million since 2011 toprojects that will improve food access in low-income neighborhoods.

"How much of that could we claim if we worked together to go after it aggressively?" Quarterman said.

[This story was originally published by Courier Journal.]