There are a lot of different ideas for filling the grocery gap on Peoria’s South Side and East Bluff.
But bringing fresh food back to these neighborhoods will likely rest on the shoulders of local entrepreneurs willing to pick up one of the concepts and try something different than what’s been attempted in the past.
The Regional Fresh Food Council recently completed an eighteen month study on food insecurity in Peoria. The initiative was spurred by the closure of the Kroger stores on Harmon Highway and Wisconsin Avenue in early 2018. The report makes 14 recommendations for helping to get a new grocery off the ground.
Some of those include incentivizing small business development in the South Side and East Bluff via TIFs, Opportunity Zones and other tools; developing alternative grocery store models for low-income, low access communities in Peoria; focusing on locally-owned and operated community grocery stores rather than national chains; and creating a Value-Chain Coordinator job to help better organize the farmers, community organizations, schools, hospitals and other groups already serving Peoria in an effort to increase fresh food access.
Tory Dahlhoff with the Greater Peoria Economic Development Council said there's nothing shocking with the report's overall findings. Food access is declining in lower-income areas where the population is shrinking and purchasing power is lower.
That doesn't mean there isn't opportunity in these neighborhoods, however. Residents in the South Side and East Bluff have limited access to fresh foods without driving across town or across the rive to a grocery store, and a market analysis suggests there is room for a new grocery option to take root in these neighborhoods and become economically viable.
In an admittedly unscientific survey of Peoria residents living on the East Bluff and South Side, about three-fourths of residents said they drive to buy food. About 12 percent take the bus, and about seven percent walk.
However, an overwhelming 92 percent said they would like a grocery store to open in the neighborhood, and 81 percent said they would shop there if it was within a 15-minute walk of their house.
Only 48 percent of households in the areas surveyed said they have access to healthy foods, and about the same number said they were likely to receive food from a pantry in their neighborhood.
A number of local grocers were interviewed as part of the report. Many reported theft is a major problem, leading some managers to avoid stocking items frequently targeted, such as liquor, cigarettes and formula.
The managers said the timing of SNAP benefit disbursement and the strict guidelines around items covered by WIC also pose significant challenges.
Traditional grocery stores such as the Save-A-Lot on Western Ave. and the Cub Foods on Knoxville haven't fared well in Peoria's grocery climate. Non-traditional models such as Sous Chef in the Warehouse District and the Well Farm at Voris Field are seeing different results, Dahlhoff said.
Ultimately, Dahlhoff suggests filling the grocery gap in Peoria will require entrepreneurs willing to build upon the foundations laid by this study and other work.
“The bigger purpose is to get this information into the hands of the community’s entrepreneurs and small business owners and say 'what type of business approach can we take to improve food access in these neighborhoods?'" said Tory Dahlhoff with the Greater Peoria Economic Development Council.
The community is invited to learn more about the report and offer their input at a meeting tonight at the Minority Business Development Center, 2139 Southwest Adams, from 6 to 8 p.m.