Struggling to get food to the table

Life without a grocery store

If you live in Rocky Top, driving to Clinton or LaFollette for groceries is getting old.

But for many, it’s much more than just an inconvenience.

The city has been without a grocery store since Shop Rite closed this past summer. While there are two Dollar Stores nearby, neither sells produce or meat.

Getting a store to Rocky Top is a priority for the city, according to City Manager Michael Foster. He spoke to the owner of the building just before Christmas, and she has cleared up some issues that were preventing the building from being sold.

“There are some grants out there that are available for cities that are food deserts, and I’m looking into that as well,” said Foster.

The city is working with the Anderson County Chamber of Commerce to pursue buyers.

“We feel like we’re moving in the right direction here,” he said. “It’s just getting that right person. We can’t force anyone to buy it, but we can make it as business-friendly as possible.”

In the meantime, things are getting tough for residents without transportation.

Rocky Top resident Kenneth Lemons says he used to walk from Lake City Middle School to Shop Rite for groceries.

“It was hard to do, but when you have to eat, you do what you have to,” he said. “Markets on the south side don’t carry a lot and the prices are higher.”

He has a vehicle now, but it’s still a challenge to drive to another town to do your shopping, according to Lemons. And it’s not just a matter of the time it takes — it’s the cost of gas.

“I’m on a fixed income,” said Tara Tate, another Rocky Top resident impacted by the closing of the only grocery store in town. “By the time I pay bills, there’s not much left for gas for the month. So unless I’m already going to Clinton or LaFollette, I don’t grocery shop, which means it’s a lot of sandwiches, Ramen or TV dinners for my household.”

Most families in downtown Rocky Top are struggling to pay bills, according to Tate, and now are also struggling to make complete meals.

“Because we can’t get what we need at the Dollar Store or Family Dollar,” she explained.

There are places in town that help families out who need food, like the food pantry at Main Street Baptist, but the people the store closure effects are those who can afford to buy groceries — they just don’t have anywhere to shop.

Still, volunteer Paula Guthrie said the church’s food pantry has seen an increase of at least 30-percent during their Tuesday afternoon food giveaway.

She said it is directly related to not having a grocery store.

“That’s not even including the people who just walk in off the street needing food and stuff,” she said.

She said that someone in her own family has been forced to go to the food pantry because of a lack of transportation to a different town for groceries.

“People just don’t have the transportation and gas,” she said.

Anderson County Community Action Commission volunteer Susan Bowling said that she has seen an increase in Rocky Top residents coming to them for help as well.

“We had an elderly lady call who was out of food,” Bowling said. “Her lights were going to get turned off, and she needed help with her bill.”

She was on a fixed income, but was having to pay someone $20 to take her to the grocery store. That’s $20 that would have gone to the power bill.

And it’s not just people in Rocky Top who are affected. People in New River, Briceville, Fraterville, and all the places in between now have a very long drive just to pick up a tomato.

“There was a lot of walk-in traffic at Shop Rite,” Bowling said. “Community Action was founded to fight the war on poverty in the ‘70s. Nothing’s changed. The faces change, but the problems are the same.”

Bowling said that many areas of the county qualify as food deserts, meaning there is no store or farmers market with fresh produce within a 10-mile radius for rural areas.

Heather Kiser is the mother of six and lives in the nearby Medford community, between Clinton and Rocky Top.

“We used Shop Rite for all of our meat, because Joe Blackwell the butcher was really great,” she said.

“They had better meat than Walmart. Tonight, I needed to grab some drinks and you either have to go to a gas station or Clinton.”

Kiser said that there are a lot of elderly people in Rocky Top’s Creekwood Apartments, and many don’t drive.

“People that are already struggling, they need to be able to go somewhere,” she said. “It’s aggravating for someone who has a vehicle and gas money.”

And more than aggravating for those that don’t.

Main Street Baptist’s food pantry is open to Rocky Top residents on Tuesdays from 12-2 p.m., as well as this Saturday at 9 a.m. On Saturday, Second Harvest Food Bank is bringing in a truck full of food for the community. It’s sponsored by the TVA.