Living just beyond the shadow of Minneapolis’ skyscrapers, Ashley Bradford has to carefully plan every trip to the grocery store.
To shop for food, Bradford has to leave Elliot Park, a working-class pocket of downtown. Like many of her neighbors, she has no car. These days, she walks from her apartment to a Trader Joe’s more than 10 blocks away, stuffing everything she can carry into a backpack and ordering the rest online.
While the population boom in the Mill District, North Loop and Loring Park has brought a Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods and Lunds & Byerlys, Elliot Park has seen more closings than openings. The Elliot Park Market closed in 2013, its bold-letter sign still taunting those who pass by. Earlier this year, neighbors lost a CVS Pharmacy.
“They just forget about us here in this little world,” said Bradford, 30, who has lived in Elliot Park for 10 years.
Elliot Park residents continue to struggle with the lack of grocery options even as the city’s new 2040 comprehensive plan directs city leaders to attract grocery stores to low-income neighborhoods. With at least 44% of neighborhood residents living without a car and a majority making well below the median income, many are clamoring for a nearby store to get quality, affordable produce, meat and other basic groceries. Lenief Heimstead, 77, moved to Elliot Park three years ago and has joined with other renters hoping to bring a new grocery.
Over the last year they have studied what type of grocery store would fit best, and what temporary solution they might provide. But the recent closure of a food co-op in north Minneapolis showed the challenges of keeping a full-service grocery open in a lower-income neighborhood.
That hasn’t deterred Heimstead. “If you’re not hopeful, then there’s no purpose in trying, right?” she asked. “I know it’s been done other ways. And so I say, why not do it in Elliot Park?”
In a meeting last year, low-income renters named lack of access to food as their main concern, said Vanessa Haight, the executive director of Elliot Park Neighborhood Inc. Through grant funding, the organization formed a “food solutions team” to study the problem.
“It’s been an issue that our organization has been exploring, really for decades, without any resolution,” Haight said. “We’re done waiting for the market to work for us. We’re going to figure it out.”
Elliot Park doesn’t meet the federal definition of a “food desert”: low-income areas that are more than half a mile from the nearest supermarket. It also doesn’t have enough children or low enough incomes to get federal help, said Cassandra Silveira, a health and nutrition educator at the University of Minnesota who coordinates a federal nutrition program.
Still, Elliot Park residents feel as if they fit the definition, Haight said. The neighborhood is home to HCMC and North Central University, as well as elegant, century-old row houses next to new apartment towers. But most of Elliot Park feels removed from downtown’s rapid expansion. Housing has remained inexpensive over the years, with many properties managed by nonprofit developer Aeon. The Elliot Twins towers are some of the oldest public housing in the city.
About 59% of households bring in less than $35,000 and 38% of residents fall below the poverty line, according to Minnesota Compass. More than half walk, bike or take public transportation to work.
They go grocery shopping the same way. Some neighbors, like Heimstead, take two buses to get to the Seward Co-op. Others take one to a Walmart in Bloomington, a round trip that can take an hour and a half. The Augustana Care assisted-living facility fills up a van to take tenants to different supermarkets.
Two bodegas remain since CVS closed, though one does not carry the staple foods required by the city, according to a recent inspection.
Haight said city staffers have been receptive to what the Elliot Park association is trying to do. Improving food access is a component of the city’s newly adopted 2040 comprehensive plan, which says the city will “take proactive steps to attract new grocery stores to locations in low-income communities, including providing financial and technical support for grocery store expansion, remodeling or equipment upgrades.”
Earlier this month, about two dozen Elliot Park residents gathered at the neighborhood’s recreation center to hear the options studied by the team.
Two small grocery stores — Good Grocer and the Hampden Park Co-Op — were considered as options that could fit within the neighborhood. Good Grocer, which is opening a new location on Nicollet Avenue, provides discounts to people who volunteer at the store.
Two temporary solutions — Fare for All, which delivers food packages, and the Twin Cities Mobile Market, a bus filled with produce that travels to different neighborhoods — were also considered. The team hopes to pursue one of those options next year, Heimstead said.
Opening a permanent store is far off. The neighborhood needs additional funding and a potential location to court a grocery store, said team member Becca Thomas, who has lived for seven years in the neighborhood and drives to shop for groceries.
“Something that’s specific to Elliot Park might not work elsewhere,” she said. “Something that really intentionally meets the needs of the variety of people we have living here would just build a greater sense of community.”
Bradford, who attended the meeting, was disillusioned by the idea of pursuing a co-op, which she said is expensive and requires extensive commitment from customers. The number of co-ops in the metro has dwindled over the decades; Wirth Co-Op in north Minneapolis, which took about a decade to open, stayed in business for only a few months before closing last year. She recommended working with the existing corner stores to expand and improve their produce selection. She referenced Toni’s Market, a bodega that carries vegetables and other groceries near the Powderhorn neighborhood, where she works as an event coordinator.
“I would just really like to see them working with the people that are already established in the neighborhood,” she said. “We just want a place where we can pick up an onion, and garlic and some broccoli and then go home.”
After the meeting, Bradford slipped on her beanie, threw on her scarf and stepped out of the recreation center. It was well below freezing.
She walked under the streetlights past the hospital and U.S. Bank Stadium and crossed the light-rail tracks. Her 15-minute walk ended at Trader Joe’s on S. Washington Avenue.
She moved speedily along the store’s aisles, picking up a bag of spinach, packs of frozen fruit and a tin of anchovies for salads. She stuffed it into her backpack and stepped outside, taking the cold, lonely path back to Elliot Park.