Portland may be known for its gourmand citizens and food-friendly culture, but according to recent studies, many residents lack proper access to full-service grocery stores. An initiative launched by the city and the Portland Development Commission (PDC) aims to fix that by attracting grocers to neighborhoods that are considered “underserved” or “food deserts.” To the chagrin of some local business advocates, however, some of the potential new stores are of the dreaded big-box variety.

Drawing from a map created by the Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability (BPS), the PDC initiative seeks to serve citizens who live more than a half-mile from the nearest full-service grocery store. This effort to help people living in these “food deserts,” according to PDC Deputy Director Kimberly Branam, was born out the Portland Plan, the city’s vast 25-year blueprint for the future. “The genesis of this project is the Portland plan and the work that they’ve been doing on the concept of the 20-minute neighborhood,” she says. “There are a number of indicators that go into that process of looking at what each neighborhood has access to, from transit to local serving businesses and grocery stores.”

The May 1 deadline for interested grocers to submit responses to PDC's Request for Information (RFI) elicited responses from businesses ranging from small neighborhood co-ops to international behemoths. The elephant on the list is Walmart, which has relatively little market share in Portland compared to stores such as New Seasons and Trader Joe’s. Nevertheless, Walmart’s response to the RFI includes plans for over a dozen new stores in the Portland metro area. New Seasons and Trader Joe’s submitted responses along with Whole Foods, which has six locations in Portland.

While Walmart or another big-box store could certainly provide disadvantaged shoppers with lower prices, experts say, small, local grocers could have a more positive impact in the long run. Still, others believe Walmart's entry into the local market could have a positive effect as described in the Oregonian's May 15 editorial.

Walmart on SE 82nd Avenue.
Walmart on SE 82nd Avenue.

Tony Fuentes, small business advocate and owner of Milagros, a socially and environmentally conscious family clothing store in Northeast Portland, believes that smaller stores have advantages that are more important than slightly lower prices. “On the one hand you have a local grocer like New Seasons that pays people above minimum wage,” he says. “They get health benefits, they actually get a career track… All of that has a larger impact on the local economy than, say, a Walmart’s going to have even with the jobs that they produce and perhaps some of the savings.”

Beyond creating good, sustainable jobs, Fuentes says, local grocers fuel the local economy by selling locally sourced goods. “I’d like to see a grocer that is either locally headquartered or headquartered in Oregon,” he says, “so that you know that most of that money is staying local as well as the commitment to local produce and local products.”

To ensure that new grocery stores are a good fit for the neighborhoods that they will inhabit, the PDC says it is reaching out to residents in the underserved areas. “The idea of having neighborhood representatives as part of the evaluation… is to really include the neighbors in this process and determine what exactly it is that they want,” says PDC Public Affairs Manager Shawn Uhlman. “The neighbors that we’re hearing from so far are very engaged and want to be involved with this process.”

Because the process is in its infancy, it is hard to tell what sort of businesses may have a leg up in the process. Jason Blake-Beach, general manager of the Alberta Co-op, which is a part of one of the responses submitted to PDC, feels that co-ops and other local, smaller businesses can be valuable additions to underserved areas. “I think there’s a demand for smaller, more neighborhood-type grocers,” he says. “I don’t know that there is a big call for giant big box locations.”

Alberta Coop on NE Alberta St.
Alberta Co-op on NE Alberta St.

Though Blake-Beach admits that his views are shaped by his line of work, he maintains that co-ops are a good fit because of their unique nature. “The [co-op] model is essentially a model of ownership,” he says. Co-ops, he says, are “responsible and accountable to the individuals in the community and owned by the community as opposed to purely making profit-motivated decisions.”

Fuentes echoes Blake-Beach’s sentiment and stresses the confidence he has in the power of sustainable local business. “In terms of pure economic development terms,” Fuentes says, “the locally owned grocer is going to have a greater impact with regards to the local economy than a... grocer that’s located out of state.” He adds that the apparent dearth of grocery stores in poorer neighborhoods may have more to do with a systemic issue. Fuentes cites the lack of sidewalk and proper bikeways in underserved areas. “That points to the problem that we still have a very pronounced issue with poverty in our city,” he says. “Especially when you get east of 42nd avenue.”

In the coming months, it will become clearer what the city has in mind in terms of new grocery stores. For now, the eternal conflict between local businesses and the big-box stores will continue unabated, with both making compelling cases for inclusion in the Portland metro area. “We’re really excited,” says Branam. “It’s exciting to see that there are grocers who are interested in going into these areas that have previously not had easy access to groceries.”

What do you think about this initiative, neighbors? Are big-box or local retailers the best solution to nourish Portland's underserved neighborhoods—and why? Sound off in the comment section below.