Birmingham changed its zoning Tuesday to increase access to fresh food and limit discount stores.
The changes are aimed to improve nutrition for an estimated 149,000 Birmingham residents –about 69% of the city’s population — who live in a “food desert.” The USDA defines a “food desert” as neighborhoods where at least one in three people live more than one mile from fresh food and have no access to a car.
“We are in crisis mode right now,” Council member John Hilliard said. “Our kids in school can’t concentrate. They don’t have the fresh fruits and vegetables in their community.”
Through its Healthy Food Ordinance approved Tuesday, the city restricts discount or “dollar” stores so they won’t pull customers from grocers; loosens restrictions on fresh food producers; and lowers costs for grocers interested in locating in the city. It sets up a half mile buffer to dodge too many stores in one area.
Discount stores now cannot be within a mile of an existing store. City officials, and those who study food issues, say discount stores worsen food deserts by over-saturating low income and majority-black neighborhoods, diverting customers and money away from grocery stores. In small towns, grocers’ revenues fell by 30% after a dollar store opened, according to city officials. Alabama is in the Top 5 states with the most discount stores per capita, with more than two stores per 10,000 people, according to city officials.
Five grocery stores have closed in Birmingham in the past decade, including Western Market, Winn Dixie and Walmart; three major chains have already rejected the city’s request for expansion.
The ordinance approved Tuesday also loosens parking and square footage restrictions on grocery stores and allows on-site sales at community gardens.
Citywide zoning changes for healthy food producers and sellers approved Tuesday include increasing the number of days per year that market stands, farmers markets and public markets can operate. It also increases the amount of compost community gardens and urban agriculture can store on-site and allows them to operate greenhouses.
These zoning changes also permit mobile grocers to operate in residential districts with some restrictions. They must operate on community sites like schools, parks and public buildings with the property owner’s written permission.
As a part of this project, the city has already invested in Marino’s expansion in Ensley and established $500,000 for the Healthy Foods Fund to pay for incentives to attract grocers. It has also conducted a local grocery store study.
The city plans to recruit a grocer to Five Points West and to support a stable transition of East Village Market, which was bought by local investors in April. It also plans to work with corner stores to offer additional healthy food options. In the long term, the city hopes to recruit a new grocery chain.