Collaborating to take on food retail disparities

UNC Charlotte is building on its action research legacy to partner university researchers with community leaders to solve the region’s systemic challenges around inequity. As part of this initiative, the University’s Office of Urban Research and Community Engagement is joining Mecklenburg County to lead a seven-month, collaborative initiative to find a sustainable, equitable and economically viable food retail solution for West Charlotte.

One of the most concrete ways Charlotte’s racial and economic segregation manifests itself is where grocery stores are located. Some communities have abundant access to fresh produce and nutritious food — others simply don’t. For decades, this inequality has been apparent on Charlotte’s west side, where many predominantly African-American neighborhoods lack full-service grocery stores. Residents — many of whom don’t have access to cars — have to either travel long distances to access grocery stores or rely on smaller convenience stores that mostly sell packaged and processed foods. It’s a stark contrast to south Charlotte, where intersections often feature competing high-end grocery stores across the street from each other.

UNC Charlotte and Mecklenburg County are bringing together academic research and strong community partnerships to address this problem. The effort builds on the decades-long work of the University’s Charlotte Action Research Project (CHARP) and other engaged scholarship initiatives practiced by faculty across the university.

The County has agreed to fund the project with a budget of more than $272,000. White presented the concept Tuesday to the Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners, which endorsed the initiative unanimously.

“This is not a research effort to produce yet another report. This is really about finally identifying a solution that we can act upon collectively,” Byron White, associate provost of the Office of Urban Research and Community Engagement at UNC Charlotte, told commission members. “This is around a collaborative interaction between researchers, faculty, students, community leaders, residents and others. Everyone’s a peer. Everyone brings expertise and learns from one another.”

County Manager Dena Diorio told the Commissioners that the new initiative will supplement the county’s ongoing efforts to address “food deserts” with a specific focus on West Charlotte neighborhoods.

“This is a new approach that hasn’t been done before, and we think it will bear some really good fruit,” said Diorio.

Unlike a simple effort to lure a new full-service grocery store to west Charlotte, this new initiative doesn’t assume that’s the only solution, or that the best solution has even been conceived yet.

Dubbed the Community Innovation Incubator, the program will start with current data, local lessons learned, and national best practices. Organizers have reached out to an interdisciplinary team of faculty members and researchers from UNC Charlotte and Johnson C. Smith University, whose expertise includes marketing, urban design, public health and geography, to use data to study the challenges to food retail in west Charlotte and evaluate solutions.

Faculty, local residents, retail experts and public health officials will work to build something new, together. The goal is to challenge assumptions and foster true collaboration while designing innovative, feasible and replicable solutions to a long-standing problem. UNC Charlotte and Mecklenburg County will invite a diverse, representative set of local residents to join the Community Innovation Incubator, guiding and shaping its work each step of the way. They’ll ensure that the community is a true partner — not a research subject — in this effort. The group will also work with initiatives underway related to food retail and food insecurity in west Charlotte, incorporating their insights.

After an initial study period, participants will meet (most likely virtually) in small groups to figure out what feasible local solutions might look like. The broader community will be invited to participate in design charrettes and other public forums to see the Community Innovation Incubator’s ideas and share their thoughts. Guiding principles will include desirability (people in the community actually want it), feasibility (we can make this happen), and viability (we can sustain this).

By June 2021, the Community Innovation Incubator will produce a plan and outline the steps to implement it, as well as begin enlisting public, private, and nonprofit support.

“Those of us who can afford to get in a car and drive, fine. But we’re talking about a major number of individuals,” said commission member Vilma Leake, who represents much of West Charlotte, “Which happens to be those individuals whom we perceive to be poor people, unable to finance and pay for the kind of food they need, rather than running to a corner store and getting canned goods or fast food items, which plague the Black community.”

We’ll provide updates along the way to keep the broader community informed of progress with this initiative. And we look forward to sharing the outcome of this process with west Charlotte, Mecklenburg County and beyond, as we work to bring fresh, nutritious food access to all.

For more information on this project contact:

Colleen Hammelman, Incoming Director for CHARP

Byron White, Associate Provost for Urban Research and Community Engagement