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Two Years After Peoria Kroger Closures, Are We Any Closer to Addressing Food Access?

Tanya Koonce
Peoria Public Radio

It’s been more than two years since two Kroger stores closed in Peoria—one on the South Side, the other on the East Bluff. 

That left two of the city’s poorest neighborhoods without a supermarket in the vicinity. 

The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines a food desert as an area that’s a mile or more from a supermarket.

The desert label also refers to rural areas more than 10 miles from a grocery store. In the aftermath of the store closings in Peoria, community meetings were held to find an answer to the area’s food desert problem.

Denise Moore, the Peoria City Councilwoman whose 1st District includes the South Side, has been one of those seeking a solution to the food insecurity issue.

“The grocery thing has stalled. All the national grocery chains we’ve approached about opening an outlet here have said no. They point to the fact that the Save-A-Lot store didn’t work,” she said.

The Save-A-Lot store that opened on Western Avenue closed in 2017 after operating for just over a year despite signing a seven-year lease on the property.

Tory Dahlhoff, a member of the Regional Fresh Food Council, said that local group’s report on the problem included a survey of area residents.

“We’re now seeking funding for a facility that could house multiple programs such as a food hub, a fresh-food market and a commissary kitchen,” said Dahlhoff, head of community development for the Greater Peoria Economic Development Council.

That Fresh Food report, issued last summer, examined trends in the grocery industry, including the growth of smaller discount stores and online grocery delivery.

Kim Keenan, an educator with the Tazewell County Health Department, said that some of the public’s responses to the council survey showed that families who live in a food desert “figure out a way to do things.”

Families who rely on government-issued SNAP and LINK cards reported doing major shopping just once or twice a month when assistance was available, she said. 

"They take a cab with family and friends to area supermarkets like Walmart,” said Keenan.

What’s been learned in the two years since the Kroger stores closed is that any solution isn’t going to be simple, she said.

“You can’t expect a business to operate without making a profit. It’s not just about access (to a store). The problem also involves the time involved to shop and the ability to make food,” said Keenan.

Alternative measures in solving the problem of the food desert include pilot programs around the country looking into ways that low-income residents can take advantage of using home delivery of groceries, she said.

“The key is getting organizations involved so that LINK and SNAP cards can be used online,” said Keenan, emphasizing that community cooperation is key. “To have systemic change, we need to have organizations work together," she said.

One example of that locally is that the two major food banks, the Midwest Food Bank and the Peoria Area Food Bank, now share resources, said Keenan. That collaboration recently resulted in the two food banks being able to raffle off 11 refrigerators to area food pantries, she said.

“That’s something they wouldn’t have been able to do working separately,” said Keenan.

Also examined on the Fresh Food report was an examination of the Dollar General Corp., a company that’s prospered by setting up in both urban and rural settings, often in food deserts. Along with household goods and beauty supplies, Dollar General also carries packaged and canned foods.

The Fresh Food study cited a 2019 report by the Minneapolis-based Institute for Local Self-Reliance that stated “in small towns and urban neighborhoods alike, dollar stores are leading full-service grocery stores to close. This strategy of saturating communities with multiple outlets is making it impossible for new grocers and other local businesses to take root and grow.”

Along with critics who charge that dollar stores drive out competition, the chain has been faulted for not carrying fresh produce.

While Dollar General operates a dozen stores across central Illinois, the only one offering produce is the outlet in Chillicothe, according to Dollar General spokeswoman Crystal Ghassemi. Out of 16,000 stores nationally, some 600 offer produce, she said.

“There are a number of factors that contribute to where we add produce to stores including customer demand and feedback as well as distribution networks,” said Ghassemi. “Although we are not a grocery store, each of Dollar General’s 16,000-plus locations provide customers with components of a healthy diet such as milk, eggs, bread, cheese, frozen and canned vegetables, grains, lean proteins and more,” she said.

Chris Merrett, director of the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University, presented a report on the impact of dollar stores in Illinois at Wednesday’s rural affairs conference in Springfield.

“(Dollar stores) are a mixed blessing, depending on the community,” said Merrett. “For small towns that have lost a grocery store, Dollar General can provide a shot in the arm,” he said.

On the other hand, communities with existing family grocery stores can be put out of business in 12 to 24 months after a Dollar General opens nearby, said Merrett.

“The location of Dollar Generals is often away from the downtown on the outskirts of a small town. What does that do to shopping patterns of that area?” he asked. The dollar store can offer convenience, said Merrett “for people who don’t want to deal with 30 aisles at a big supermarket or a 10-acre parking lot.”

Robin Grantham, a South Side resident who works with the Peoria Citizens Committee for Economic Opportunity, said while she supports efforts to solve South Peoria’s food desert issue, her focus is on housing in that neighborhood.

“When you have 600 vacant lots on the South Side, we know this is an area we want to build up,” she said.

“We’ve got to do something with new housing while helping homeowners maintain their present home,” said Grantham, noting that PCCEO recently secured a $500,000 grant that will allow for the replacement of 24 roofs for low-income residents in the area.

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