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New Target could change Chapel Hill's food desert classification

Construction of Carolina Square, a mix of apartment buildings and retail and office spaces, should be completed before the start of fall semester.
Construction of Carolina Square, a mix of apartment buildings and retail and office spaces, should be completed before the start of fall semester.

While there are many restaurants and stores on Franklin Street, Chapel Hill qualifies as a food desert.

Downtown Chapel Hill is a food desert due to a lack of easily accessible healthy and affordable foods — because it doesn't have an affordable, full-service grocery store. 

However, the new Target in Carolina Square could change that. 

Molly De Marco, a research assistant professor in the Gillings School of Global Public Health, said the University community needs a place to shop for groceries closer to the downtown area. 

“I think a lot of people assume that because of the University and that we have a lot of people here who are, of course, professors, students or grad students who are highly educated and have good jobs, that we don’t have issues with poverty,” she said. “We have a pretty high food insecurity rate among children — about 20 percent in our community.” 

De Marco said the new Target could help alleviate the food insecurity, depending on what the store stocks and how high its prices are. 

“Thinking about the fact that we have food desert areas in our county and people who are not able to eat adequately nutritious meals is something that should be important to us,” she said.

Food deserts push people toward buying highly processed food that isn’t necessarily healthier, but eliminates hunger, De Marco said, thus inciting obesity and other complications. However, she said there are several social challenges that also negatively impact well-being, especially when people aren't able to afford meals to enjoy with others.

Nonprofit organizations, such as TABLE, are working in Chapel Hill and Carrboro to combat food insecurity. Ashton Tippins, TABLE’s executive director, said food security was simply defined as a person having nutritious food to eat.

“The fact that residents will have easier access to fresh food — that is definitely a good thing, as long as it’s in their price point,” she said about the new Target in Chapel Hill.

TABLE works with Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools to provide food to students in need.

“There’s a lot of issues that come along with kids being hungry,” Tippins said. “We can’t expect them to have as good of relationships, perform as well in school or even sometimes behave properly if they don’t have the food that they need.”

Jashawnna Gladney, food pantry director of Carolina Cupboard, said the new Target would be beneficial for students and residents in terms of accessibility. But Gladney said she felt a lack of affordability could potentially negate these benefits.

“My primary concern is the fact that, since it is going to be a Target and it's going to be on Franklin Street, I believe the cost of items are going to be more expensive than they would normally cost at a Target,” she said. “We won’t really know how beneficial it is until the business is established and the prices are set.”

To help further alleviate food insecurity on campus, Gladney said Carolina Cupboard is working to expand its food pantry to a larger space with refrigerators to provide students with perishable items — some free of cost.

“It’s really not about what stores students have access to, it's more about understanding the economic barriers of why a student may have access to that store, but still not have true access to purchase the item that they need,” Gladney said. 

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