As Lance Fahy does his grocery shopping, there is hustle in his step. He leaves his cart behind as he surveys the length of a meat cooler, stopping his lateral shuffle along its edge here and there to check prices.
He’s got two oversized cloth grocery bags to fill and only about 20 minutes to do it. But he doesn’t check his watch. Fahy says he has the time in his head. It’s a trip he does often — at least twice a week — holding his grocery shopping to 20 minutes so that he doesn’t have to wait another 30 for the next bus.
“It always is close, getting in and out in 20 minutes,” Fahy said. “There have been a couple times when I have walked out that door and seen the bus pulling away.”
Fahy, who is visually impaired, has to get a ride or take the bus to the store from his home in the Pinckney Neighborhood. When he misses the bus home, it makes the nearly two-hour grocery trip even longer.
Fahy is likely one of many residents for whom a convenient stop at the grocery store is elusive. City-wide, more than one-fourth of all Lawrence residents live within a federally designated food desert, a low-income district where the majority of residents live more than 1 mile from a full-service grocery store.
Fahy’s trip this day is to Checkers grocery store, and requires a bus transfer downtown. Each way door-to-door is about 40 minutes. There are grocery stores closer to his house than Checkers, but Fahy, a father of three, said the low-cost grocery is worth the extra bus time for the particular list of items he has today.
Fahy is 1 of about 13,000 people in northeastern Lawrence who live in a federally designated food desert, according to Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department data. The other two areas with the designation are in southeast and southwest Lawrence.
Combined, there are about 24,000 people in Lawrence living in a food desert, according to the data. Of those, more than 10,000 live below poverty level.
Though many people think the food desert designation only regards a neighborhood’s distance from a grocery store, health department staff say the income element is just as important.
“It’s particularly hard for people that maybe make less money,” said Charlie Bryan, community health planner. “... Everything is just kind of magnified, in terms of the impact on their lives. You’re more likely to not have a car, or if you do it’s in bad shape or you’re sharing a car.”
Fahy’s house, for instance, is more than a mile from Dillons grocery store on Sixth Street and nearly 4 miles from Checkers.
In areas designated as low-income, more than 20 percent of people live below 200 percent of the federal poverty level, according to the data. For instance, a family of four living below 200 percent poverty will earn less than $48,600 in 2016.
Interwoven with the distance and socioeconomic element is the aspect of time — like the two hours it took Fahy to get food for a few meals. Bryan said that especially for people with low income, time can become another barrier.
A waiting game
Time for Fahy, his 20 minutes in the store, is nearly up.
Though Fahy said it's “not the end of the world” if he has to wait another 30 minutes for the next bus, he does have a schedule to keep. He does residential cleaning by the hour, and he has an appointment.
Fahy seems to have his tactics down, and he has tips. He says it’s all about having a plan to follow before you walk into the store. He moves casually around his idling co-shoppers, traversing the aisles with minimal backtracking. This day, Fahy makes it to the bus stop with about four minutes to spare.
In the short time in the store, he’s purchased two bundles of kale, bananas, cooking oil, pumpernickel rolls, a dozen eggs, tortillas, a red onion, dry beans, canned tomatoes, ground hamburger, club soda and three bags of shredded cheese — comparing prices all the while.
He’s overshot his two cloth bags, and has a plastic one looped through his fingers as he waits at the bus stop along 23rd Street in weather that he says could be worse. It’s 25 degrees, but he says it’s better than summer, when refrigerated items heat up quickly.
A downtown grocery
Fahy recognizes he’s not alone in his cumbersome grocery trips, and though he is visually impaired, he noted he can still get around quickly and easily compared to some. When people get on and off the bus, he greets some by name, makes small conversation.
“It’s not just my situation,” Fahy said. “I observe a lot of people that are having to spend more time and energy to access healthy food than they really should have to.”
Fahy said that for him, the healthy aspect is key, especially when feeding his three kids, ages 8, 12 and 15. He said if he wanted to buy packaged food, there are a few gas stations or convenience stores within walking distance from his house.
“If I were just eating junk, I could go down to the gas station," Fahy said.
But that’s not what he wants.
As communication coordinator for the Pinckney Neighborhood Association, Fahy has been representing the area on a downtown grocery store committee for the past year. The committee has been meeting for four years in an effort to get a full-service grocery — with meat, dairy and fresh produce — to locate downtown.
The committee has representatives from several neighborhoods surrounding downtown, East Lawrence, Brookcreek, Old West Lawrence and North Lawrence. Representing the latter is North Lawrence Improvement Association president Ted Boyle.
Boyle has lived in North Lawrence his entire life and remembers the days when there was a grocery store in North Lawrence, when people could walk if they had to or wanted to. A grocery store downtown would help, he said.
“So, this will enable all residents — handicapped, bicyclists, walkers — to be able to get healthy affordable food in any mode of transportation,” Boyle said.
Boyle said the committee, which meets weekly, acts as the “go-between” with downtown grocery store developers and residents of the various neighborhoods that surround downtown.
Though the idea of an upscale grocery story has been talked about, Fahy says he is supportive of a downtown location with a full-service grocery store and pharmacy that would be affordable for everyone.
“I think it would be for the greater good of the community,” Fahy said.
No easy task
Though downtown groceries were commonplace decades ago, getting a developer to locate a grocery store downtown has not moved quickly.
A local development group has been working on the concept for years, but a project has yet to make a development filing with the city.
Plans to redevelop the former Allen Press property at the northeast corner of 11th and Massachusetts streets failed to solidify a couple years ago.
Now the plan is to convert the former Borders bookstore site at 7th and New Hampshire streets into a multistory building that would house a grocery store on the ground floor. But not everyone is behind that idea, in part because the developers are hoping to build much more than a grocery store.
One group has taken the disagreement to the courtroom.
The development group, led by Lawrence businessmen Doug Compton and Mike Treanor, is being sued by residents of the adjacent Hobbs Taylor Loft building. A main element of the lawsuit is the expansiveness of the project, which would roughly double the size of the former bookstore site. In addition to a grocery store, the developers are hoping to add two levels that would accommodate 82 apartments.
The grocery store project would require multiple city approvals, and it is expected that the development will seek economic incentives from the city.
The city is in the process of overhauling its incentives policy after some public disapproval of past incentives agreements, some of which went to apartments and commercial projects led by Compton.
The downtown grocery committee meets at 9 a.m. on Thursdays in the meeting room at Capital City Bank, 740 New Hampshire St. The committee’s fourth meeting of the month is held at the Lawrence Public Library, 707 Vermont St.