WHILE PORTLAND is known as foodie heaven to gourmands, numerous neighborhoods face an embarrassing shortage of the most essential food resource: a grocery store.
Portland has almost 60 full-service grocery stores, but there are strips in every quadrant of the city considered "food deserts"—both because of their low average income and a lack of grocery stores within a half-mile.
Earlier this month, timed with Mayor Sam Adams' State of the City speech, the Portland Development Commission (PDC) put out what's called a "Request for Interest," asking grocery stores and real estate developers to signal whether they would be interested in building a new store in one of those strips.
It's not clear exactly how the city would lure new store locations, but it will probably involve a mix of low-interest loans on city-owned land or straight-up financing with urban renewal dollars.
The PDC's plan doesn't discriminate between brand or size of grocery—any full-service grocery could wind up receiving city subsidies to locate in a neighborhood without grocery stores. That means Lents could soon be saying hello to a PDC-funded Costco, Walgreens, or even Walmart (the nation's number-one supplier of organics).
Most of Portland's food deserts are on the edges of the city, in the neighborhoods east of Interstate 205 or south of Foster. Surprisingly, North Portland neighborhoods University Park and Boise-Eliot also show up as glaringly devoid of grocery stores.
Lents, an urban renewal area in Southeast Portland, has long pushed to snag a grocery store. In a survey of 213 residents in 2008, 73 percent listed a grocer or natural food store as the most-needed retail in Lents.
"We've been talking to a lot of smaller specialty grocery stores for at least eight or nine years. We get a lot of form letters back," says Lents Urban Renewal Advisory Committee Chair Cora Potter. "You'd think New Seasons would be interested, since they're going out in the Portland Plan meetings saying they're interested in equity."
Grocery shopping for Potter means driving about once a week to the New Seasons in Happy Valley seven miles away, she also orders a lot of food from an online delivery service and participates in a food-buying club with neighbors. Frustrated with the lack of grocery stores, Lents residents tried to start a co-op storefront back in 2008, but the plan fell apart.
Several major cities, including New York, Chicago, and Washington, DC have begun giving tax breaks in recent years to grocery stores that locate in food desert neighborhoods.
Portland is willing to take on attracting grocery stores as an equity issue. Studies show that neighborhoods without grocery stores are more likely to be low-income and have higher rates of obesity because residents have to do their shopping at convenience stores.