ALPENA — More people in Northeast Michigan have easy access to food than in prior years, but hundreds of households still struggle to reach a grocery store.
Compared to 2015, 56 fewer Northeast Michigan households in 2019 lived far from a supermarket and lacked access to a vehicle to get them there, according to the latest data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Access Research Atlas.
The reasons for the improvement weren’t immediately clear, though the USDA data suggests income went up in some parts of the region.
Despite the improvement from the earlier map, 370 Northeast Michigan households in 2019 still lived at least a half-mile from a supermarket and had no access to a vehicle, according to the USDA.
Especially since the 2020 closure of Neiman’s Family Market on the south side of Alpena, the closure of other grocery stores in the region, and the Thunder Bay Transportation Authority’s scaled-back services during the coronavirus pandemic, some residents say they struggle to access healthy food.
Alpena resident Kay Verdi said she lives near the shopping center where Neiman’s closed in September and the store’s closure made it harder to shop for groceries.
“I don’t drive, so I have to rely on either places I can walk to or (take) Dial-A-Ride,” she said, referring to the Transportation Authority’s on-call bus. “There’s nothing within walking distance of me, anymore, and, even with the bus, there’s no place close.”
FOUR FOOD DESERTS
The USDA’s map shows four so-called “food deserts” — low-income U.S. Census Bureau tracts where at least a third of the population lives at least a half-mile from a supermarket — in Northeast Michigan:
∫ In a northeast Presque Isle County tract stretching from Rogers City down to Pulawski Township, 29 households — 16 fewer than in 2015 — lacked vehicle access and lived at least a half-mile from the nearest supermarket.
∫ In a tract spanning all of western Alpena County and much of the southern part of the county, 77 households — five fewer than in 2015 — fit that definition.
∫ In a large chunk of the eastern Alpena area, stretching from Chisholm Street to Misery Bay Road, 111 households — 49 fewer than in 2015 — struggled to access groceries.
∫ And in the western Alpena area, from Chisholm to Bagley Street, 50 households without vehicle access lived at least a half-mile from the nearest supermarket, the same as in 2015.
One food desert disappeared between the two maps.
In 2015, the USDA said an area southwest of Alpena, stretching along M-32 west to Indian Reserve Road and south into Wilson Township, counted as a food desert. Not so in 2019 — despite the fact that 14 more households in that area lacked vehicle access and lived far from a supermarket — because that area’s overall income improved, according to the USDA.
‘A PAIN IN THE BUTT’
Sanborn Township Supervisor Ken Gauthier said Mr. Ed’s IGA in Ossineke closed about three years ago after fuel tanks leaked there. A Family Dollar nearby offers some food, but nothing like the full-fledged grocery store the village once had.
Gauthier said the next-nearest grocery store was Neiman’s.
Now, it’s Save A Lot, another two miles north of Neiman’s old spot, or Meijer, two-and-a-half miles farther.
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“They closed up Neiman’s in town, and that was our alternative,” he said. “It’s not far to go across town, but it’s a pain in the butt.”
Especially for the 370 Northeast Michigan households far from a supermarket who lack access to a vehicle.
“It’s certainly important to have food within walking distance, because not everybody is going to have a car, and not everybody is going to have access to transportation,” Alpena Area Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Adam Poll said. “That being said, the City of Alpena has been awesome in their support of Thunder Bay Transportation Authority.”
But, with low ridership during government-ordered shutdowns last year meant to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, the Transportation Authority scaled back its weekday hours and eliminated weekend service.
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While weekday hours have returned to normal, authority officials said they don’t expect weekend service to return anytime soon. And, while officials have sought grants to improve service in Alcona and Montmorency counties, the authority doesn’t run regular trips in those places.
Still, Northeast Michigan has seen some positive signs.
Male’s Grocery Store reopened in 2020 off of Long Rapids Road in Alpena, for example after sitting shuttered for four years. And an Aldi may open on M-32, though that would sit near existing supermarkets Meijer and Walmart.
Mike Mahler, the Alpena Chamber’s director of economic development, said he doesn’t know whether that store will come to fruition or not.