Housing Segregation: How Food Insecure St. Paul’s Public Housing Residents are Facing Covid-19 without their Grocery Store - Isabella Health Foundation

Housing Segregation: How Food Insecure St. Paul’s Public Housing Residents are Facing Covid-19 without their Grocery Store

By: Josh Lowe
Josh Lowe is a freelance writer and editor specializing in public policy and social affairs.

How important has your local grocery store been during Covid-19? For many people, shelter-in-place orders, travel restrictions and more have turned their nearest store into a lifeline. But this has only highlighted a truth that applied long before the pandemic: access to healthy, affordable food is not a luxury, it is a necessity.

For three vulnerable public housing communities located in Norfolk, Virginia, that lifeline was severed last month. The Save A Lot grocery store in St. Paul’s, a fairly central area which includes the Young Terrace, Tidewater Gardens and Calvert Square communities, shut its doors on June 20th. 

Approximately 4200 people — almost all of them Black — who live in those communities are now stranded in a “food desert,” miles from healthy, affordable groceries. They share this fate with millions of food insecure Americans. But living in such places only deepens existing racial health disparities and brings attention to the damaging effects of gentrification, both during the pandemic and beyond.

Creating a Food Desert

When the Save A Lot closed, it left residents of St. Paul’s needing to travel between 1.9 and 2.4 miles to another budget grocery store. A more expensive store, Harris Teeter, is available, but even this is a 30 minute walk away.

This meant locals were left with limited access to healthy, affordable food such as fresh fruit and vegetables. According to the USDA, approximately 39.4 million people live in food deserts throughout the U.S.

In all but the densest urban areas, if a higher proportion of the population belongs to an ethnic or racial minority, the area has a greater chance of being a food desert. That rings true in St. Paul’s, according to local media, the more affluent nearby area of Ghent has four grocery stores within a mile of one another.

Karina Rayeford, a single mom with three kids, told CNN it felt like the St. Paul’s community was being abandoned in the middle of a crisis.  

“It’s the worst time for this to happen,” she said. She didn’t have a car, she explained, and would have to ask relatives and friends to get her groceries. 

Managing the crisis

Rayeford’s predicament raises an immediate problem during the pandemic: heightened risk of transmission. 

Limiting the spread of coronavirus means limiting the number of people you come into contact with as much as possible. That’s tricky if you’re asking lots of other people to buy you your food. 

And, like racial and ethnic minority people across the country, St. Paul’s residents may be more likely to rely on public transportation for journeys that are not walkable. 

The city has added new bus lines from St. Pauls to other grocery stores. But if shoppers take the bus, that could further increase the risk of exposure to the virus. 

Meanwhile, taking public transportation safely means following a host of burdensome and potentially stressful behaviors.

There’s another pandemic-related problem too: time.  Just think about how much work it is keeping safe during Covid-19. 

You need to take time to keep up a stock of supplies in case of quarantine. You may have additional childcare responsibilities due to the closure of schools or other services. Even finding a supply of masks can be a serious trial. 

These stresses may be particularly pronounced for people with lower incomes and fewer transportation options.

By adding significant time and stress to the process of buying groceries, the St. Paul’s grocery store closure could make it tricky to complete these other essential activities. 

To help overcome this, the Isabella Health Foundation is distributing 2,500 masks in St. Paul’s  at an event on July 15th.  

Underlying concerns

Before the pandemic, St. Paul’s residents were already facing threats to their health and homes thanks to rapid gentrification. 

What is gentrification in St. Paul’s? In January 2018, The Norfolk City Council approved a plan to “transform” the three St. Paul’s public housing communities into “safe and thriving mixed-income, mixed-use neighborhoods with accessible quality affordable housing, jobs, services and amenities”.

But a lawsuit filed this year against the city and its public housing authority alleges that the plan will “illegally” force residents to live in segregated housing — potentially even outside the city — before new housing has been built.

And, once the redevelopment is complete, the lawsuit claims that there won’t be enough affordable housing for them to move back into. 

In turn, the city has emphasized there is much confusion among residents about the move.  Housing vouchers will be provided for all residents which can be used anywhere in the country that accepts vouchers and residents will not be forced out of their homes without replacement housing.

The press release promoting the lawsuit claims otherwise, “this is another case of gentrification at the expense of the African American residents of the city.”

Unequal housing can adversely affect residents’ health

“Racial housing segregation is linked to health conditions, such as asthma and other underlying medical conditions, that put people at increased risk of getting severely ill or dying from COVID-19,” according to the CDC

Communities where more racial and ethnic minorities live may also have more exposure to pollution and other environmental hazards. 

People living in multigenerational households — more common among ethnic and racial minority groups — might find it difficult to shield older people in their homes from the virus if they don’t have enough space. 

St. Paul’s is uncertain as to its next steps. City officials told CNN that they are exploring long and short term answers, with everything from a different grocery store chain to “food hubs” for local farmers among the options. 

But the recession that accompanied the pandemic has left city budgets stretched. The Save A Lot was only attracted to the area, in 2015, thanks to city action. The distraction and resource drain from Covid-19 might make that kind of solution more difficult this time. 

However, local activism can go some way to filling the gap. A “Community Food Disparities Coalition” set up by local leaders has explored solutions such as a “mobile food market” giving out free groceries.

Meanwhile, in St. Paul’s, people feel a profound sense of injustice. 

According to Angelia Williams Graves, a Norfolk City Councilwoman: “You go to white neighborhoods, and you see three or four grocery stores. It’s like they’re falling all over each other, whereas black people can’t walk down the street and get anything but a Slurpee.”

Back to top