CityLab published an excellent article last week that discussed the Pizitz Food Hall and how it can assist in overcoming the food desert in downtown Birmingham. I profiled the Pizitz mixed-use project a little while back, with its culinary component being a food hall and restaurant incubator. What I did not realize, are the surrounding issues that downtown Birmingham has faced over the past several decades with feeding its local residents. The food hall, restaurant incubator, and a brand-new Publix grocery store located a few blocks away will remedy some of the concerns that people have faced with local food security.
My favorite part of the article is whether grocery stores or food halls can actually bring more awareness to eating healthy and local:
But will this crack downtown Birmingham’s food desert problem? There’s certainly excitement in Birmingham over these new arrivals, but researchers are “far from consensus” on how to alleviate food deserts, says Michele ver Ploeg, an economist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service. One commonsense approach is to give the green light to initiatives that aim to promote public health by bringing fresh and healthy food into a community at an affordable cost. Supermarkets are often the go-to intervention, since they tend to be fairly affordable and offer a range of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean meats.
But the influence of supermarkets on healthy eating is less clear. In 2014, a study in Philadelphia found that increased access to grocery stores did not ultimately result in healthier eating habits; meanwhile, a study in Pittsburgh found that a supermarket did promote healthier eating habits, but not because people were actually shopping there. As Laura Bliss reported for CityLab, the entire neighborhood’s eating habits improved regardless of whether residents switched to shopping at the new grocery store.
Food halls play an even fuzzier role in eliminating food deserts, as a relatively new phenomenon that operates somewhere between a restaurant and a market. Ver Ploeg points out that restaurants may help fill gaps in a food desert, but their prices may curb accessibility for those in lower income brackets. Meanwhile, prepared foods are mostly not eligible for SNAP benefits. It’s worth noting, too, that many of Birmingham’s lower-income families now reside in neighborhoods outside of the downtown core, in areas that remain without either a grocer or a food hall.
There are no concrete answers from an academic point of view, but these are trends that are sometimes hard to quantify, especially since healthy eating habits can require a very long transition timeline. What I do believe is that providing local residents with a wide-array of food choices along with proper education will ultimately be an added benefit to society, ultimately creating healthy and sustainable communities over the long-term. Residents require choice. Not just an organic produce market, and not just McDonalds, but everything in between.
I’m a big believer in the idea of a food hub, especially for cities that have to deal with large swaths of food deserts. The concept that residents are able to learn, eat, and purchase good within the culinary realm, all in one place is highly important. And much of the time, it won’t be induced by a grocery store moving into a neighborhood or a cool taco shop (as much as I love cool taco shops). There needs to be a local grassroots component to increasing food access and healthy eating choices. Which is why in the case of Birmingham, it is great to see that REV Birmingham, an economic development agency is so involved in attempting to ensure that the food movement stays local, and for locals that require food accessibility, and entrepreneurial opportunities.
Now, I understand that the idea of a food hub is just in its infancy and it is still very difficult to make sense of it from a financial sense for a private developer. But the idea of a food hub that contains the components of a food hall, grocery store, education, food distribution, incubator, commercial kitchens, among other items is something that public officials should get excited about from a community building standpoint. One way to counteract financial risk is to not have all components within one development. We need to be INNOVATIVE. What if a city planning department is able to create a new zoning typology where culinary-related land uses and developments are given preference and receive certain incentives? Are there other policies out there that governments can take advantage of?
Getting back to Pizitz, I do think this is a great step in providing economic stability to an area that has obviously gone through great upheaval. The addition of the food hall, incubator, and grocery store will add much needed vitality to a once struggling neighborhood that was considered a food desert. Now lets see how it performs once it opens in December.