A rendering of Birmingham's future food hall. Bayer Properties

Downtown Birmingham is poised to get a new grocery store and sleek food hub. Could they reverse the neighborhood’s status as a food desert?

Birmingham’s downtown core is on the cusp of pretty radical food change. The Alabama city is poised to open its first downtown chain grocery store in memory, and the historic Pizitz department store—which has sat vacant since 1988—is coming back to life next month with an 18,000-square-foot food hall serving everything from ramen to poke to Ethiopian cuisine. On the ground floor of the mixed-use building, the Pizitz Food Hall will offer two restaurants, a bar, and 13 food stalls, including a food incubator project to encourage local entrepreneurs.

Now, the question is: Can these new developments appeal to residents across demographic groups, and chip away at the city’s food insecurity?

For decades, food deserts have been a scourge across this once-vibrant city, which fell into neglect after years of white flight in the 1950s and ‘60s. In 2014, IBM’s Smarter Cities Challenge report acknowledged that “food insecurity is a problem of immense magnitude in Birmingham.” At the time, 88,000 Birmingham residents lived in areas without access to affordable fresh and healthy food. Downtown Birmingham continues to be one of those areas, says David Fleming, chief executive officer of the economic development organization REV Birmingham. Many residents have to rely on a handful of convenience stores for groceries, or perhaps take the bus to another part of town. Fleming and other economic developers have spent the last 10 years trying to lure a supermarket to downtown Birmingham to no avail.

But the city center has recently gone on a revitalization tear, welcoming new restaurants, a brewery, and a minor league baseball field. Major employers like the University of Alabama Birmingham have expanded and drawn in new residents, creating foot traffic to support a grocery store. “The timing was right,” says Brenda Reid, spokesperson for the grocery chain Publix, which will open its first downtown Birmingham location in early 2017.

Food security was a key consideration for the Pizitz Food Hall’s developer, Bayer Properties. The president and CEO Jeffrey Bayer says he originally flirted with putting a grocery store into that ground-floor space. But when Publix announced it was moving in just blocks away, Bayer pivoted. “We said, ‘What can we do that’s unique that adds to it?’” he says. Food halls, which were cropping up in other cities, seemed like an exciting alternative. “All of a sudden, downtown Birmingham will now have a full-line grocery store and a food hall,” he says.

But will this crack downtown Birmingham’s food desert problem? There’s certainly excitement in Birmingham over these new arrivals, but researchers are “far from consensus” on how to alleviate food deserts, says Michele ver Ploeg, an economist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service. One commonsense approach is to give the green light to initiatives that aim to promote public health by bringing fresh and healthy food into a community at an affordable cost. Supermarkets are often the go-to intervention, since they tend to be fairly affordable and offer a range of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean meats.

But the influence of supermarkets on healthy eating is less clear. In 2014, a study in Philadelphia found that increased access to grocery stores did not ultimately result in healthier eating habits; meanwhile, a study in Pittsburgh found that a supermarket did promote healthier eating habits, but not because people were actually shopping there. As Laura Bliss reported for CityLab, the entire neighborhood’s eating habits improved regardless of whether residents switched to shopping at the new grocery store.

Food halls play an even fuzzier role in eliminating food deserts, as a relatively new phenomenon that operates somewhere between a restaurant and a market. Ver Ploeg points out that restaurants may help fill gaps in a food desert, but their prices may curb accessibility for those in lower income brackets. Meanwhile, prepared foods are mostly not eligible for SNAP benefits. It’s worth noting, too, that many of Birmingham’s lower-income families now reside in neighborhoods outside of the downtown core, in areas that remain without either a grocer or a food hall.

Birmingham has seen residents clash over the question of gentrification downtown. In the middle of the last century, many white residents migrated to neighborhoods outside of the city center; in subsequent decades, middle-class black residents followed, says Lonnie Hannon III, associate professor of sociology at Tuskegee University. But recent revitalization efforts have focused seemingly exclusively on the downtown core, creating lofts and condos and increasing median home values from $32,500 in 2000 to $220,500 in 2014.

Earlier this year, residents of other neighborhoods expressed their frustrations with that revitalization at a municipal meeting. “They worry that too many newcomers, mainly wealthy people and white people, will move into Birmingham,” reported WBHM. “There’s concern those newcomers will make it too expensive, change the culture, and open businesses that don’t serve the needs of their neighborhoods.”

Those residents weren’t necessarily taking aim specifically at the Publix or Pizitz. But Hannon says food options tend to increase when middle and upper-middle class white people move in to a neighborhood and bring with them an influx of capital to spend on vendors. That said, Hannon argues these revitalization projects are ultimately a good thing for all Birmingham residents. The benefits—including engines for economic development and public goods—just take time to reverberate, he says.

A rendering of the courtyard of the Pizitz Food Hall. (Bayer Properties)

Those benefits seem to have a shot at trickling down at these new ventures. Bayer says the mixed-use building will offer affordable housing for lower-income families, and he’s banking on its potential for job creation within the community. Though most of the vendors are from outside Birmingham, Pizitz stalls will also feature local entrepreneurs like Lichita’s, which previously sold Mexican paletas and ice cream in a suburban strip mall. “To me,” Bayer says, “the trick was to keep [the stalls] at a manageable size and scale that a Mexican ice cream guy could see himself through to be able to pay the rent.”

Bayer also expects vendors to offer reasonable prices, given that rent on these small stalls will be comparatively low. Those prices aren’t available just yet, but a quick scan of menus from future vendors including Choza Taqueria and Eli’s Jerusalem Grill reveals entrees hovering around $10. For one stall, rent will be free: REV Birmingham is leasing space for a food incubator, Reveal Kitchen, to support a rotating cast of entrepreneurs. It’s precisely aimed to help locals who don’t have the capital to start a business on their own.

Meanwhile, Publix offers some remedies to the community, as well. The chain participates in the Electronic Benefits Transfer program, which makes produce more affordable to lower-income residents. It will also likely employ locals and join in the fight against hunger. “We are aware of the need to fill the voids where there are quote-unquote food deserts,” Reid says, “and we rely on our community partners to help in that area.” The grocer partners with local feeding organizations to distribute thousands of pounds of perishable produce every year in the Birmingham metro area.

Fleming argues that while Publix and Pizitz will provide food in an area that needs it, food security can’t hang on just one element. “There are multiple tactics being deployed,” he says. REV Birmingham and other agencies like the Community Food Bank of Central Alabama are engaged in neighborhoods across the city, providing fresh foods to corner stores, putting mobile food pantries out on the road, and trying to influence healthy food choices by erecting displays (donated by grocery store chains) directing shoppers to fresh foods in corner stores.

Regardless of its economic implications, Pizitz Food Hall will offer Birmingham a cultural benefit: exposure to cuisines that simply have never existed in the Alabama city. Developers worked with local food bloggers to identify voids in the Birmingham food scene—including Ethiopian and other international cuisines—and fill them. Fleming says that the yet-to-be-revealed inaugural Reveal Kitchen occupant will offer one of those cuisines, which he points out will also benefit residents for whom this cuisine means home. “We’ve never seen something like this here,” Fleming says. “This will be something unique.”

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