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Kroger is closing at Northern Lights- where to go from here?

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Residents of Northeast Columbus ended 2017 with a shock when Kroger announced it was closing its Northern Lights grocery store on January 31st. The Cincinnati-based company offered little explanation, only stating it has lost over $3 million since 2012, despite company investments in the location. Residents and local officials alike expressed disappointment a neighborhood anchor will soon sit dormant, while also fearing the area will soon turn into a food desert, defined by the USDA as places lacking access to healthy food.

Is a food desert on the cusp of reality, however? I tried googling grocery stores nearby, and here’s what came up in addition to the Kroger:

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A smattering of options appear, none as large as Kroger but several outlets where food can be purchased. These are reflected in the USDA’s most recent Food Atlas data, which doesn’t indicate a food desert in the immediate area (to see where food deserts do presently exist in Columbus, check out Thoughtwell’s December Databyte).

Even though the data doesn’t match the definition of a food desert, the concern over Kroger’s closure is evident. Who’s being impacted the most? Let’s look at the surrounding community: the 11 Census tracts within a 1 mile radius of the store, and data from the 2016 ACS 5-year estimates.

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First I looked at general demographic indicators. The tracts’ 2016 estimate was 31,029, an 11.3% increase from 2011’s estimate. This actually outpaces the City of Columbus’s growth, which was only 7.4% in the same period.

Second, I looked at data related to spending. Just over 30% of the over 12,000 households in the area are food stamp or SNAP recipients, several percentage points above Columbus’s citywide rate of 17%. Household income is weaker in the immediate area as well: the median for the tracts combined is $33,636, well below the City’s $47,156.

Lastly, I looked at access and how far folks could travel. Franklin County Commissioner John O’Grady related to the Dispatch that not everyone in the area has access to a car and data suggest a challenge not seen in other parts of the city.  Among the tracts, nearly 16% of households do not have a vehicle at their disposal, compared to just 9.6% citywide. And although COTA’s new CMAX line has been touted as a local catalyst, the closure means no full service grocery store remains on the route.

So what does this mean going forward? Many residents may start shopping at the Save-A-Lot or other options seen in the map above, although as O’Grady noted, none of these offer the full service options of a pharmacy, bakery, banking, or other needs. Some may start traveling to the Northland Kroger on Morse Rd (which is across the street from a vacant storefront that used to be…Kroger) and have to sacrifice the additional time to travel farther. For their part, Kroger will be running a shuttle to the Morse location. Whether it’s utilized or spurs more permanent solutions, we don’t know.

In the long term attracting a replacement will be a big task, and require the efforts of multiple stakeholders. Between the political will of O’Grady and Mayor Ginther, resident input and needs, and food-related resources such as the Countywide Local Food Action Plan and nonprofits like Local Matters, it will be interesting to monitor how these different actors mobilize and respond.