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Winn-Dixie Closures May Perpetuate Food Deserts

Mar 28, 2018

It’s called a food desert. That’s when it’s difficult to buy affordable or quality fresh food, and it’s a major problem in Florida.

In west central Florida, about 60 percent of residents live either in poverty or more than a mile from a supermarket, according to Feeding Tampa Bay, a nonprofit food bank. 

Access to that food got harder Tuesday, as the Jacksonville-based parent company of Winn-Dixie filed for bankruptcy and formally announced that it will close 35 stores statewide — including 10 in the Tampa Bay area.

That comes as a blow to a state that is fourth in the nation for family hunger (see the full list of store closures here).

“When a grocery store closes, you suddenly have a gap in the community. That’s a concern,” said Thomas Mantz, executive director of Feeding Tampa Bay.

A closure like this has a one-two punch on a community: First, people may have travel farther to get to fresh fruits and vegetables. Second, food banks like Feeding Tampa Bay receive surplus food donations from supermarkets like Winn-Dixie.

“Anytime we lose a retail partner, we lose food,” said John Livingston, chief operating officer of Sarasota-based All Faiths Food Bank.

Livingston said grocery store contributions account for 30 percent of its food donations. All Faiths has partnered with Winn-Dixie for about 10 years. 

Competition in the supermarket industry is also tightening. Amazon's acquisition of Whole Foods last year served as a shake-up in the grocery business, and retailers such as Walmart are also making investments in e-commerce.

Livingston said that could have a devastating impact in communities in food deserts. E-commerce and food being delivered directly to customers are sometimes not a possibility for people living in economically depressed areas, Livingston said, citing delivery and up-charges for the convenience.

“The people who can’t afford groceries now, can’t afford e-commerce, but if the grocery stores downsize because of e-commerce, that’s less choice for the people that need it as it is,” he said. 

Some independent, small grocers are being forced out of business, limiting choices even further. 

“We’re at a cusp right now. The next five years will tell us a lot, but we don't know what the future is going to look like yet,” Livingston said.