- A Foodless Neighborhood in a "Foodie" TownTracing Scarcity in Asheville's East End Neighborhood
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In 2000, to usher in the new millennium, my husband and I bought a crack house in Asheville's East End. This was not a glib assessment of one of those abandoned houses you see with overgrown bushes in the front yard, a sad, sagging porch, and a rumored history of violence, although the house had all those things. We found little crack baggies lying on the floor next to a stained mattress in the front bedroom. There was a hole in the kitchen floor where you could peer into the dirt crawlspace below, and the back porch was filled with waterlogged furniture, discarded 40-ounce bottles, and lots and lots of trash. It needed a complete rehab. But it was cheap, it had good bones, and we were young and strong. The house ended up being a treasure at the price we paid, and we found other treasures there, too. What we didn't find, however, was food.
The house we bought, renovated, and made our home is a 1910 two-bedroom, one-bath, 1,100-square-foot cottage on Ridge Street in the East End neighborhood of Asheville, North Carolina, and is fairly typical of the homes you'll find there. East End is a traditionally African-American neighborhood encompassing about 250 acres, nestled between downtown Asheville and Beaucatcher Mountain.
Asheville is known nationally as a "foodie" town, regularly featured in magazines such as Food & Wine and Southern Living as an eater's destination. Its Convention and Visitors Bureau branded the city and its food scene the "Foodtopian Society" and "Foodtopia," registering both as trademarks. Asheville and the surrounding area boast a strong local farm community, plenty of independent farm-to-table restaurants, multiple neighborhood tailgate markets, a permanent state-owned farmers' market, and what some Ashevillians feel is a surplus of supermarkets. It never crossed our minds when we moved to Asheville that we'd have issues with food access.
But with only one car and my husband working an hour away, I soon realized that there was nowhere within walking distance where I could pick up simple groceries. When my husband had the car and I needed milk or bread, I was stuck without. It was an inconvenience for me and my family, but for some neighborhood residents—many of whom were elderly, disabled, or without access to a car—it was a major hurdle to address every day.
When we moved in, there were no vegetable gardens. The nearest groceries could be found at a downtown food co-op only a 15-minute walk from our house—but the co-op specializes in expensive, organic, seasonal food. There was also one convenience store, a little more than a half-mile away, but like most convenience stores it had few options for fresh food. The nearest supermarket was a full mile away: an old Ingles with limited selection and tired produce. It was accessible only by the narrow, winding roads over Beaucatcher Mountain, or through the mountain itself via a busy tunnel designed for vehicular traffic. While East End isn't recognized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a food desert, for all [End Page 114] intents and purposes that's what it was. So how did East End, so close to the heart of Asheville, end up without any food?1
At first blush, it seems that there is an easy answer: the food disappeared as a consequence of the East End–Valley Street Community Improvement Project, an urban renewal initiative implemented in the neighborhood in the late 1970s. Digging deeper, though, reveals that urban renewal wasn't the only cause. A more nuanced examination points to a range of local and national trends...