by Mike Templeton

The holiday season is a happy time for most folks. This is a time for family and celebrations. But as we know, this time of year weighs heavily on people who struggle to simply put food on the table. The same markers of the festive season can be markers of more struggle for some. The Urban Appalachian Community Coalition is keenly aware of this, and this is why we urge everyone to take some time for their neighbors as the stresses of the holidays may have become more pronounced this year. There are several factors that are impacting greater Cincinnati that are complicating things for many communities, and simple access to groceries is among the most pressing.

The emergence of food deserts has become an increasing problem around the country, and Cincinnati is no exception to this. Simply put, food deserts are parts of an urban area where people lack access to a grocery store or any other stable source of food. There are several food deserts in greater Cincinnati: Cincinnati Magazine profiled Walnut Hills and Avondale as parts of the city that have not had a grocery store for several years. Residents in these neighborhoods must travel to other parts of the city to get decent groceries. This, of course, proves to be a major hardship for those who are already at an economic disadvantage.

Another neighborhood that lacks a source for decent food, and one that has historically been an urban Appalachian neighborhood, is Camp Washington. What has proved to be a substitute for a grocery is a Family Dollar. Places like Dollar Tree and Family Dollar have come to occupy urban and rural neighborhoods where family grocery stores once provided people with a stable source of affordable and healthy groceries. These places are not sources of real food, but they have to suffice in the absence of anything else. The impact of these places is twofold: the food they offer is mostly poor quality and not healthy. And they destabilize local economies that support neighborhood grocery stores.  

A recent article in the online magazine Counterpunch revealed that dollar stores have expanded in the country at an astounding rate. There are now more dollar stores dotted around parts of the United States than there are MacDonald’s and Walmarts combined. They rake in 434 billion in profits, and what they primarily do is “drive out the local groceries,” and “fresh food is replaced with the kind of high-calorie, sugar-rich processed junk that is fueling the health crisis in low-income America.” As urban neighborhoods around greater Cincinnati lose real options of groceries, what they get in exchange is cheap non-nutritional junk that has to stand in for food. This is what is left to the economically disadvantaged to feed their families—this or nothing. As we lose local grocery stores and even big box chains in some of our neighborhoods, we end up with exploitive corporate junk.

We need to consider all of this in light of the fact that food prices are rising at an alarming rate around the country. According to The New York Times, the price of food eaten at home has risen 13 percent in the past two years. This is to say nothing of food eaten at restaurants. We are talking about the things people need to stock their homes with basic food items. We are facing a potential crisis in our most vulnerable neighborhoods—urban Appalachian neighborhoods and others where people lack resources. There are, of course, food pantries in greater Cincinnati. The Freestore Foodbank and Churches Active in Northside (CAIN) are two of the most prominent examples. But for many people, all that is lacking is a real source for real affordable groceries.

Meiser’s Fresh Grocery & Deli in Lower Price Hill provides one solution to the inter-related problems of food deserts, exploitative sources of poor food, and rising grocery prices at the main grocery chains. The work of Meiser’s, a social enterprise started and run by LPH community members through nonprofit parent Your Store of the Queen City, offers a legitimate neighborhood grocery store for Lower Price Hill. Meiser’s is a public community grocery store where people can shop for real groceries, as opposed to microwavable junk and beef jerky. Meiser’s carries bread, milk, produce, eggs—the kinds of things people need to provide healthy meals for families. This is something that has gone missing in urban areas around the country and is noticeably absent in many neighborhoods around greater Cincinnati, including many historically urban Appalachian neighborhoods.

Image of Reba Hennessey, Director of Your Store of the Queen City, accepting an award from UACC at the 2022 Lower Price Hill Appalachian Festival.

Reba Hennessey, Director of Your Store of the Queen City, filled me in on their latest developments. As Hennessey explained: “We have been working with other food initiatives around greater Cincinnati to share things we have learned and participate in mutual support. And we have been working at developing partnerships to continue the process of re-building community access to groceries and healthy food.” 

Hennessey said this involves a lot of data mapping, networking, fund raising, and ongoing community relations. The goal is to support community grocery stores in other parts of the city. This work is part of the System to Achieve Food Equity Network (SAFE) which is a blueprint for how to continue building neighborhood grocery stores and meaningful food access.
Meiser’s also has options for those who simply cannot afford what they need. 

I asked Reba Hennessey about their plans with the holidays upon us, and she told me they are continuing their free options that are already a part of how Meiser’s operates. “Meiser’s has a section in the store with free fruits and vegetables and cold food donations. People can take what whatever they need and the free produce is one of our most popular products, period–even more popular than single-portion snack sales.

“We also get regular donations of shelf-stable items that are available to those who need them, and we do get some donations of free La Soupe family meals and soups, as well as meat and dairy which are also free to whoever is in need. When hungry neighbors come, we also offer them a hot meal.”

Against the tide of food deserts and dollar store colonization of urban neighborhoods, Meiser’s Fresh Grocery & Deli in Lower Price Hill offers something of an oasis amid the deserts. You can contribute to Meiser’s Fresh Grocery & Deli on their website below. The Urban Appalachian Community Coalition applauds this type of direct community action and mutual support. Offering a helping hand is always welcome. Helping people to help themselves, as the residents of Lower Price Hill are doing here, is ideal.

Information about Meiser’s Fresh Grocery & Deli can be found at this link:

Sources cited in this article:

Simonetti, Isabella and Julie Creswell. “Food Prices Soar, and So Do Companies’ Profits.”

St. Clair, Jeffrey. “The Retail Carrion Feeders of Rural America.”

Mike Templeton is a writer, independent scholar, barista, cook, guitar player, and accidental jack-of-all-trades. He is the author of the forthcoming The Chief of Birds: A Memoir. Available later this year from Erratum Press, and Impossible to Believe, forthcoming from Iskra Books. Check out his profile in UACC’s new Cultural Directory. He lives in downtown Cincinnati with his wife who is a talented photographer. They spend their free time walking around the city snapping photos. She looks up at that the grandeur of the city, while Mike always seems to be staring at the ground.

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