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In Heather Nevins’ ideal world, healthy food would cost less than junk food. 

Nevins has cerebral palsy and said that she must eat gluten-free, dairy-free and soy-free to keep down inflammation. On Nevins’ fixed income with social security and minimal food stamps, one box of lentil pasta from Whole Foods Market looms large in her finances. 

“I eat healthy. Everybody should eat healthy. It would cost them less money in doctor[‘s fees],” Nevins said.

Nevins lives with her sister, Monique Nevins, who also has cerebral palsy, in the Woolen Mills neighborhood. 

The sisters patch together food assistance like Meals on Wheels and the Loaves and Fishes Food Pantry with groceries and said that they eat eggs or pasta if they have nothing else.

One in six Charlottesville residents are food insecure, meaning they struggle to find reliable and affordable food options, according to the Thomas Jefferson Health District’s 2017 MAPP2Health report

“That’s really important, because Charlottesville is freaking thriving. Our food economy is thriving so much that people forget that 1 in 4 people live in poverty,” said Charlottesville Food Justice Network program director Shantell Bingham.

Roughly 25% of residents live below the federal poverty line in Charlottesville, according to 2014 data cited in MAPP2Health.

Monique (left) and Heather Nevins piece together groceries and emergency food assistance in their quest to eat healthy food. Credit: Credit: Emily Hays/Charlottesville Tomorrow

One piece of Charlottesville’s food insecurity, Bingham said, is the decline of the affordable, local grocery stores that would be able to serve these residents.

Charlottesville’s history of race and racism is intertwined with this decline, Bingham found in the 2018 white paper she compiled for the food justice network. One example in the report – before Vinegar Hill was razed in the name of urban renewal – the predominantly black neighborhood and business district had four grocery stores. 

Local journalist Jordy Yager has found that there were 11 black-owned grocery stores in Charlottesville in 1916 and 1950.

Bingham said that black-owned farms in Albemarle County and surrounding counties provided fresh food for these grocery stores. Urban renewal, she said, broke those relationships.

“More and more [after desegregation], we’re seeing that people of color are losing control over food access and the food economy,” Bingham said.

Food-related health indicators show this disparity. The likelihood of death from diabetes is four times higher for African American Charlottesville residents than their white counterparts, according to the CFJN white paper.

Shantell Bingham of the Charlottesville Food Justice Network talks with Joy Johnson of the Public Housing Association of Residents at a CFJN workshop on July 16. Credit: Credit: Emily Hays/Charlottesville Tomorrow

Many Reid’s customers walk to pick up their groceries, Clements said. 

Transportation is an additional barrier in the Nevins sisters’ quest to eat healthy food. 

Monique Nevins used to live alone in Scottsville, where she could walk to the Scottsville Farmers Market on Saturdays and the Food Lion was close. The Scottsville Library was across the street from her apartment.

“I actually put in a résumé at the library,” Monique Nevins said. 

When she returned to the library the next day, she had a severe migraine that hospitalized her, “so no more résumé,” she said.

She gave up her life alone after the medical event and moved back in with her family in Fluvanna County. After the sisters’ father sold their house, they moved into a rent-subsidized duplex in Charlottesville.

In Charlottesville, however, Monique and Heather Nevins no longer feel confident that they can walk across the street without getting hit by a car. Even the Meade Park Market held on Wednesday at the entrance to the Woolen Mills neighborhood feels inaccessible.

The Nevins sisters schedule rides with JAUNT to go grocery shopping, which offers them more personal attention and a more direct ride than the potentially crowded Charlottesville Area Transit bus. The rest of the time, they rely on social workers or a family friend to take them to the grocery store.

Reid Super-Save Market sources some of its produce from local growers, including the Chiles Peach Orchard. Credit: Credit: Emily Hays/Charlottesville Tomorrow

In a recent two-day workshop facilitated by the food justice network and the Environmental Protection Agency’s Local Food, Local Places program, community members pushed for creating more community gardens and fresh markets by and for low-income residents. Walkability was a key component of the vision.

Clements said that if the region wanted to support local groceries like Reid’s, discouraging large chains would be the place to start. She also suggested that the city offer grants to existing and new groceries to help them survive.

Some communities have decided to limit the number of convenience and dollar stores, which tend not to provide fresh food and may perpetuate the lack of food access in poor areas.

Bingham said that Charlottesville’s cost of land is a barrier to increasing healthy grocery options for low-income communities. She said she was part of a group that considered starting a cooperative market in the former Kim’s Market site in Fifeville, but the cost of buying the land made the project unfeasible. 

But Bingham would like the city to start thinking of healthy food access as a human right.

“If someone’s starting up a grocery store in the city that is affordable and can meet this need, we need to start protecting those as community assets. Everyone knows you don’t get into the grocery store business to make a huge profit. If you want to do that, go start a brewery,” Bingham said.

To watch CBS19’s reporting on transportation and food access, click here.


Emily Hays grew up in Charlottesville and graduated from Yale in 2016. She covered growth, development, and affordable living. Before writing for Charlottesville Tomorrow, she produced a podcast on education and caste in Maharashtra, India.