Lefree Market

Forget mediocre food

Home » What it’s like to grocery shop when you live in Albany’s food desert

What it’s like to grocery shop when you live in Albany’s food desert

7 min read

This story is part of “A City Divided,” a weeklong series examining how Albany became divided along racial lines. 

She couldn’t buy the large bottle of soap because it would be too heavy to carry on her walk back home after the CDTA bus dropped her off.

So Ana Jivera grabbed the small one, paid $75 for her groceries and waited for her ride outside the store’s bus stop.

After six days of work as a hospice caregiver, Jivera had finally made it to her one-day weekend, a small window of time she used to travel by bus to the Walmart in Bethlehem. She had bought as much food as she could fit in her bag, which resembled a suitcase with its wheels at the bottom, and now sat on a cart flipped on its side, waiting for an engine’s load roar.

“It’ll be here soon,” she said. Around her were 10 more people, also waiting. She thought of how smart she was to forgo the beef and ice cream she had been thinking of getting. The first might have rotted as the other melted. The voice of a radio station host came through the store’s outdoor speakers.

“Focus on the good things,” the radio host said. 

Jivera, 60, chuckled. At least she could pay the 65-cent bus fare and didn’t have to walk 80 minutes to get her groceries. At least the bus was usually on time, and she had only been forced to pay $14 for a cab ride once this year. And at least the 40-minute bus ride gave her time to rest. 

She would be home soon, she knew. Back to Albany’s South End, to the neighborhood that has not had a single large grocery store since the late 1990s. Decades of federal housing policies and inaction from local elected officials have created and sustained economic disparities in Albany, spurring poor access to grocery stores in predominantly Black neighborhoods and, for some, an unbalanced nutritional diet. 

In New York, 656,000 people live in “food deserts,” which the U.S. Department of Agriculture defines as an area where the poverty rate is 20 percent or higher and where, in cities, a third of residents live more than a mile from a grocery store. In Albany’s census blocks that are predominantly comprised of Black residents and people of color, 95 percent of the area is identified by the USDA’s Food Access Research Atlas as a food desert.

In addition to the suburban Walmart, Jivera’s other closest grocery option was Market 32 on Delaware Avenue in Albany, a 1.2-mile walk but a difficult one because her shoulder was giving out more and more. Even if traveling to Bethlehem was more costly for Jivera, she could try to rest her shoulder on the four-mile bus ride back home. 

Feeling restless, she got up from the overturned cart. Carmen Rodriguez, 75, smiled in her direction. Rodriguez had skipped out on buying pink flowers because she couldn’t remember if CDTA allowed them on board, and her nephew was beside her, holding two large bags filled to the brim with food in order to make the most out of their biweekly trip to the supermarket. 

Roughly 40,000 people in the county shared their struggle in acquiring food, and as customers exited the store, reaching into their pockets for keys or swinging their work lanyards, Jivera was reminded of her own lack of mobility, one that contributed to the county’s tally of 11,500 households without a car, according to Albany County data compiled by Siena College. 

“I think that one’s going that way,” Rodriguez said in Spanish, pointing to an approaching bus. 


“No, that’s not for us,” Jivera said. She squinted her eyes. “Wait — yes it is.”

The bus opened its doors but didn’t put down its ramp. Jivera grunted as she lifted her bag, and Rodriguez took her nephew’s hand, carefully making her way to a seat.

As the bus traveled through the South End, it jolted every time it drove over a gutter or pothole.

“Ow,” Jivera said. 

Five bananas fell out of her bag, and as she hunched over to retrieve them, the bus shook again. 

“I wish there were seatbelts,” she said, touching her right shoulder. She scooted the bag closer to her feet. 

Special report

A City Divided

How New York’s capital city splintered along racial lines


Kellen Rielle/Times Union

Almost a century ago, parts of Albany were “redlined” as too risky for real estate investment. Learn how decades of housing policies made Albany’s Black neighborhoods also its most economically challenged. Also in the series:

And still to come: On Thursday, meet a resident of Ezra Prentice Homes, near the Port of Albany, who has lingering health issues. The series concludes Sunday with the steps residents and experts think must be taken to eliminate racial disparities in Albany.


Grocery shopping in a food desert means careful calculations for Jivera. No buying items that weigh more than two pounds. No large Pepsi bottles, only the miniature cans. No food item that can easily spoil in the summertime. No purchasing large quantities of any product, no matter how necessary, because the last time Jivera got a 15-pack of toilet paper and carried six bags of groceries, the bus driver had told her it was too much, and she couldn’t get on.

Across the aisle from Jivera was Iris Ortiz, 70, who was now taking the bus to get her medication because the Walgreens and Rite Aid near her home in the South End had closed years ago.

“It’s OK,” Ortiz said. “I’m getting used to it.”

Nineteen minutes later, the bus arrived at Jivera’s stop. Again, the ramp wasn’t put down. She wheeled her groceries to the front exit.

“Thank you,” she told the driver, and then gripped her bag. 

Jivera hunched her shoulders and took a deep breath.

“One, two, … ugh,” she said, lifting her groceries.

On that same bus was a woman named Martha, who forgot her credit card and cursed herself in a whisper. There was a man in his 20s who loved taking the bus because it was what he had always done in the South End, even as a boy, helping his mother with shopping.

There was an older man whose plastic Coca-Cola bottle fell when the bus made a sharp turn. There was Alfonso Clark, who wished a grocery store would just finally manifest at a reasonable walking distance from him. 

His elected city officials had tried. Former Councilmember Dominick Calsolaro had written plans asking for a 20,000-foot store that could fill “the existing gap in the community fabric.” But the financial incentives he offered didn’t convince any companies. County Legislator Carolyn McLaughlin had reached out to several stores since 2000, but only received rejection letters that based their decisions on “risk management” and “low profit margins.” Dollar General and Family Dollar had set up shop in the South End, but they were selling few fresh products.

Meanwhile, Albany’s predominantly white neighborhoods have gained three new supermarkets since 2008, making it seven total stores in all of downtown Albany’s majority-white census tracts and none in majority Black tracts and those where other people of color live, according to a 2019 study from the Journal of Public Affairs.

Tim Simmons walks home with his groceries after shopping at the Price Chopper on Delaware Avenue on Wednesday, May 12, 2021 in Albany, N.Y. (Lori Van Buren/Times Union)
Tim Simmons walks home with his groceries after shopping at the Price Chopper on Delaware Avenue on Wednesday, May 12, 2021 in Albany, N.Y. (Lori Van Buren/Times Union)Lori Van Buren/Albany Times Union

For Tim Simmons, 69, the lack of a nearby store only gave him an excuse to exercise that same afternoon. He walked from work to Market 32 on Delaware Avenue and bought strawberries and butter.

Wednesday: A profile of a resident of Ezra Prentice Homes, near the Port of Albany, who has lingering health issues.

Thursday: A visit with an Albany teacher, who is trying to make a difference in children’s lives.

Sunday: The steps residents and experts think must be taken to eliminate racial disparities in Albany.

 


“I’m happy about it,” Simmons said, gripping his single bag and beginning his mile-long walk home, toward the building on Morton Avenue that in April was plastered with a yellow sign that read: “DANGER. This structure is declared unsafe for human occupancy or use.”

Simmons was still living there. He had been laid off from his job at a trucking company during the Great Recession in 2009, leading to a bad credit score as he borrowed his way for a few years before ending up in the City Rescue Mission in 2013, without work and unable to find adequate housing. But he had found solace in Scripture and a renewed faith that maybe he could find a job if he could just apply to the right one. Eventually, he was hired as an office clerk for the state Education Department.

He had embarked on his dream of becoming a full-time health nutrition and life coach, telling clients that they were “only one step away from a miracle.” But his credit score had continued to haunt him, and now, after several landlords denied his application, he was stuck living in a food desert, in a dilapidated building where, after a 20-minute walk, he climbed up a broken staircase and tried to keep an optimistic attitude.

“This is so bad,” he said, examining his surroundings.

There in the corner of his bedroom was a dead mouse. He heard something scurrying in the next room. 

“But I stay positive, until, you know, until … ,” he said, and then looked down to avoid the mouse traps on his bedroom floor.

He placed his strawberries and butter in the fridge, and then walked back outside, right as the sun was setting. 

A woman was pushing a cart full of food up a paved hill through Lincoln Park. Simmons looked at her. The wheel was getting stuck on a crack. She pushed it several times, pushed it again hard, and then the wheel continued its squeaky ascent. 

Behind her were two more shoppers, hauling their groceries up the same hill.

lefreemarketdepaname.com | Newsphere by AF themes.