In the past several weeks Augusta has been in headline news all over the world on two topics – one positive, one negative.
The 2013 Masters Tournament took place last week. Thousands flocked to our beautiful city and millions watched golfer Adam Scott win the coveted green jacket. Many congratulations to him and his country of Australia.
Less than two weeks earlier, headlines blared about a grocery store closing in an economically disadvantaged Augusta neighborhood while residents watched tons of food and other grocery items hauled onto a truck to be taken to an area landfill. One headline read “Bank Throws Away Food Right In Front of the Poor and Hungry.” I actually saw the scene as I drove by that Tuesday afternoon after picking up one of the children I mentor, but I had no idea what was happening at the time. I found out later when I logged onto Facebook and read comments that dominated the social media site and the evening television news.
MY FIRST THOUGHT about this incident was: Could this have been handled much differently? Wasn’t there a compassionate individual, who knew this eviction was going to take place, who could have brought some people together to discuss how and where the nonperishable contents of this store could be disposed of, without an audience? Webster’s Dictionary defines “compassion” as “deep awareness of the suffering of another coupled with the wish to relieve it.”
I’m familiar with the eviction process, from personal experience, and know that it takes weeks for it all to play out. There are multiple opportunities for resolution to take place during that time frame. So there was time to come up with a game plan so that this public relations nightmare wouldn’t have occurred.
As a believer and a person with strong faith, I believe there will be something positive that will come out of this horrible situation. And based on the fact that the nonperishable items were indeed taken to Golden Harvest Food Bank after all, it is clear this could have been handled in a much different way. But the damage already was done. Follow-up stories are good, but often people don’t read them or remember. What they will recall is the first image and information they saw about a story.
THE GOOD NEWS, believe it or not, is that the spotlight is now on this area, also known as east Augusta, for another reason other than high incidents of crime, which it is mainly known for. Now that the grocery store is no longer in business on Laney-Walker Boulevard, there is only one very small independent store on East Boundary Street. The closest large grocery stores, Bi-Lo on Gordon Highway and Kroger on 15th Street, are between 10 and 15 miles of the 20,000-plus residents who live in that area. That to me is the travesty. Think about how far you have to drive to buy food for your family. Some probably live close enough to walk, like I do.
I remember living in east Augusta for one year when my father was stationed in Vietnam. I was in first grade and attended W.S. Hornsby Elementary School. That was the only time my family lived in Augusta before my father retired from the Air Force after 20 years in service, and we settled here in April 1975.
MY SOLUTIONS-ORIENTED radar in me spurred me to research grocery-store business models sensitive to the needs of economically depressed neighborhoods. In my research I discovered that many large-chain grocery stores seem to think people in those areas are not worthy of their business.
Excuse me – even if a disproportionate number of folks live on food stamps, that is still the equivalent of money, and they have to eat. Again, lack of compassion comes to my mind.
I understand business and the need to make money and a profit. I get that. And so does actor, philanthropist and businessman Wendell Pierce ,who with his partner Tony Henry recently opened a grocery store in New Orleans created specifically for areas overlooked by the “big boys.”
A longtime high-school friend of mine – who no longer lives here, but has a passion for community economic development and giving people hope, just like I do – brought this to my attention after reading my comments on Facebook. Their stores are stocked with healthy and nutritious food, and they offer educational opportunities on healthy eating and living. Their mission is to be a part of the solution in bringing hope to the city devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. I love the concept.
THERE IS A NEW catchphrase called “urban food deserts” that a friend, committed to addressing this in our community, brought to my attention several months ago. According to experts these “deserts” have become rapidly growing emerging markets for those interested in economic development revitalization efforts in distressed areas.
An urban food desert simply means ‘a district with little or no access to large grocery stores that offer fresh and affordable foods needed to maintain a healthy diet.” According to The Augusta Chronicle, there have been five areas identified in Richmond County.
I have coined a new term – “compassionate economic development” – and have assembled a team that will be working on projects to address this chronic concern in east Augusta. I believe that most people are compassionate about something. I also believe we are a community of compassionate people. We are simply compassionate about different things. But it also seems that compassion about economic development efforts in various part of our city has to be all or none. This doesn’t have to be the case, because we can work collaboratively if we share the same vision.
INDIFFERENCE MAY occur when one is not aware of a particular issue, but it doesn’t mean a person is not compassionate. For example, until I read an article in The Augusta Chronicle last June about Georgia ranking No. 2 in childhood obesity, I was not aware of that statistic; therefore, I wasn’t compassionate about it. As an advocate for young people and as part of my monthly Unlikely Allies Emerging Leaders Conference Series, I helped organizers add a health/fitness session as part of our training, and the young people love it. I am passionate about teaching these young people healthy behaviors that can stay with them the rest of their lives.
The lack of healthy grocery stores in areas such as Laney-Walker has a direct impact on the childhood obesity problem, which affects their ability to concentrate and learn in school. The negative domino effect is huge, and we have to do something about it.
RECENTLY SOME of our Augusta commissioners took a trip to Chicago to receive national recognition for the new Laney-Walker Boulevard/Bethlehem housing development. I commend the staff with Augusta Housing and Community Development for the fine job they’re doing. And the new homes are beautiful. But the people who plan to live in those fine homes still have to eat, and I’m sure they would welcome the chance to shop for healthy foods without having to pack a light snack for the long trip to the grocery store.
There is a popular saying: “A rising tide lifts all boats.” It was true when President John F. Kennedy most popularly used it in a 1963 speech, and it is true today. We have a unique opportunity now to address and resolve myriad social concerns, which can have a positive impact on the entire region, and in an area of Augusta that gets and receives the least compassion and love.
(The writer is an entrepreneur, author, youth advocate and mental health advocate in Augusta.)