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Friday, April 12, 2024

‘We’re the forgotten side of town’: Food deserts in East Gainesville

How food insecurity arose on the east side and why the lack of grocery stores persists

<p>A 2021 report from the city based on USDA data identified 11 food deserts — low-income areas where a substantial number of residents have low access to a supermarket or large grocery store — in Gainesville.</p>

A 2021 report from the city based on USDA data identified 11 food deserts — low-income areas where a substantial number of residents have low access to a supermarket or large grocery store — in Gainesville.

The west side of Gainesville is occupied by a bounty of big box supermarkets. Publix. Trader Joe’s. Aldi. Whole Foods. Winn-Dixie. Save A Lot. The Fresh Market. 

But in the cocoon of East Gainesville, divided from the student-populated west side by Main Street, there is only one convenient, accessible grocery store: Walmart Supercenter.

Even this retail giant, at 1800 NE 12th Ave, is about a 10-minute drive from historic east side neighborhoods. 

“We're the forgotten side of town,” said 27-year-old Ashley Hickmon-Nwadigo, a resident of East Gainesville since 2005.

A 2021 report from the city based on USDA data identified 11 food deserts — low-income areas where a substantial number of residents have low access to a supermarket or large grocery store — in Gainesville. Since 2014, the food insecurity rate in Alachua County has remained higher than the overall Florida rate. 

The city has no current proposals to build a grocery store on the east side — despite reserving $3.3 million for this purpose. 

The $3.3 million loan from the American Rescue Plan was initially approved in 2021 to open Bravo Supermarket on the empty lot on Hawthorne Road, but this proposal was halted in January. The money may be reallocated if a partnership with a supermarket is not secured soon, Commissioner Reina Saco said.

“At the end of the day, the city is not a grocery store owner nor developer,” Saco said. “We are still waiting if anyone wants to help.”

Isabelle Gonzalez, a 19-year-old UF biology junior who lives along Southwest Archer Road, regularly shops at Butler Plaza and Butler Town Center: home to a Whole Foods, Target and two Publix stores, all within about a mile radius. 

“I think it's really disheartening when you focus on a temporary group of students that are coming and going, as opposed to reinforcing the infrastructure in the city of Gainesville for people that live there throughout their entire lives,” she said. “It’s honestly kind of shameful.”

University students tend to be ignorant to the disparities East Gainesville residents face, Gonzalez said. They often distinguish the west side as the “nicer side.” 

Now, the east side struggles to overcome stereotypes of high crime rates and poverty — typecasts that add to grocery stores’ reluctance to open a new location.

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Nyaja Craig, an East Gainesville resident, said these excuses are pitiful; crime is everywhere. 

The 25-year-old grew up in an East Gainesville that has been neglected by city and county officials.

“They put more time and effort out west instead of just putting in a simple grocery store,” she said.

When I-75 was developed to the west of the city, it allowed for quicker work commutes and increased the convenience of running errands across the region, both for residents and visitors. The city departed from its tradition of developing around the university and expanded west toward the freeway. 

Butler Enterprises expanded after an I-75 exit was added to Archer Road. West Gainesville boomed with economic growth while East Gainesville remained largely unchanged. 

Profitability factors into grocery stores’ reluctance to open on the east side, said Joel Davis, the executive director of the David F. Miller Retail Center at UF’s Warrington College of Business. It is always the same response: Stores on the densely populated west side are more profitable.

Grocery stores work on very small profit margins — about 1% to 3% — and their most profitable items, like paper towels and toilet paper, are typically sold at dollar stores, he said.

At least three dollar stores are situated east of Main Street.

“The potential profitability of a grocery store is really impacted by having a Dollar Tree across the street,” he added. “And because those are so pervasive in areas like [East Gainesville], I think that's a very difficult prospect for a grocery store to try to overcome.”

Saco said population density is another barrier East Gainesville must overcome. Too few people live in the area to meet the profit margins a supermarket requires. However, zoning changes could bring in more density without gentrifying or changing a neighborhood.

A supermarket can act as an anchor for East Gainesville, she said, attracting investors and activity; but the challenge for the city is finding a partner willing to take the plunge and come to the east side.

Commissioners’ apparent prioritization of the west side frustrates Hickmon-Nwadigo, a Lincoln Estates resident. She said she is exhausted by the city’s continuous halting of proposals that could benefit the community, like the Bravo Supermarket plan. Year after year, it’s “nothing, nothing, nothing.”

Hickmon-Nwadigo said she has little hope for a partnership between the city and a supermarket in the near future.

“I honestly don't think we'll see any more improvement until gentrification has fully occurred and there are more white people on the east side of Gainesville,” she added.

Contact Carissa Allen at or follow her on Twitter @carissaallenn.

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Carissa Allen

Carissa Allen is a third-year journalism and political science double major. She is excited to continue her work on the Metro desk this semester as the East Gainesville Reporter. In her free time, you can find her scuba diving, working out or listening to a podcast.

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