FAIRFIELD, Ala. -Walmart's decision to shutter 154 stores across the country means that, starting Thursday, residents without cars in a neighborhood near a historically black college outside Birmingham, Alabama, will have to cross dangerous roadways on foot to get fresh produce and meat. Come Friday, folks in Coal Hill, Arkansas, will need to drive 15 miles to get to the nearest supermarket and pharmacy. Low-income neighbors of Wichita State University in Kansas, too, will be losing quick access to fresh groceries.
The store closings by the world's largest retailer are creating three new food deserts in these neighborhoods with nearly 15,000 residents combined, according to an Associated Press analysis.
One of them is in Fairfield, Alabama, a hard-luck suburb of 11,000 about 8 miles west of Birmingham. The Walmart there sits on a highway marked by dreary swaths of abandoned commercial buildings, fast-food restaurants, payday lending businesses and gas stations. By late last week it was already out of fresh food, and shoppers who picked over the remaining items also worried that the store's shutdown could affect competitive prices nearby.
"That gives the stores the opportunity to raise their prices because you don't have anywhere else to go," 66-year-old Diane Jones said as she loaded bags into the trunk of her older sedan.
Besides the three new food deserts, another 31 neighborhoods in 15 states will lack any place that sells fresh produce and meat once the last of the Walmart stores slated for closure turns off the lights Feb. 5. However, poverty is not so pervasive in those neighborhoods that they would qualify as food deserts, as defined by the federal government.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture considers a neighborhood a food desert if at least a fifth of residents live in poverty and a third live more than a mile from a supermarket in urban areas, or more than 10 miles in rural areas, where residents are more likely to have cars. Nearly 9,000 neighborhoods are considered food deserts by that definition, according to the USDA's most recent review.
Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (WMT) has been at the forefront of efforts by national food retailers to end food deserts.
Almost five years ago, several major food retail companies pledged to build or renovate more stores in or near food deserts by mid-2016 as part of Michelle Obama's campaign to reduce childhood obesity. Only Walmart and an independent store that is part of a cooperative had met their goals for the first lady's group, Partnership for a Healthier America, as of last year. Walmart had pledged to build or renovate up to 300 such stores, and by last year the company had built or renovated 392 stores, with the majority of those being new stores.
A Walmart spokesman said the company is still committed to ending food deserts. It is making donations to food banks in communities where stores are closing, increasing the budgets of stores in neighboring locations and also working with potential buyers of its stores' properties to bring other supermarkets to the affected neighborhoods, said spokesman Brian Nick.
The company also said it is sticking with its plans to open nearly as many stores over the coming year as it is closing now, although not necessarily near the locations it is leaving.
"We are working with the communities on how we can be helpful," Nick said.
In Fairfield, where a U.S. Steel Corp. plant laid off about 1,100 workers last year, the closure of the Walmart supercenter will eliminate 300 more jobs, said U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell, who called it another blow to the city whose biggest private employer now is historically black Miles College.
To get to the next-closest grocery stores, a Piggly Wiggly and a Save-A-Lot, residents who don't drive will have to cross highways with up to six lanes of traffic, medians and no sidewalks.
Buses run through Fairfield about once an hour on weekdays, less frequently on Saturdays, and there is no service on Sundays, when many people do their shopping. Other nearby stores are harder to reach without a car and offer less variety, although some complained the Walmart never seemed to be fully stocked anyway.
"If you don't have your own transportation it's gonna be a problem," said Ron Hood, who works in customer service for the Birmingham-area public transit agency. "When Thanksgiving comes, Piggly Wiggly can't handle it. You know they only have so many bunches of greens."
In Wichita, the Walmart that opened four years ago became a community hub in a shopping plaza that previously had been a haven for prostitution and gang shootings, said Pastor Kevass Harding, whose Dellrose United Methodist Church is right by the store.
The store hired workers from the neighborhood. Residents -- many who are elderly -- could walk just blocks to get their medicines at Walmart's pharmacy, as well as fresh produce and meat.
"We had a place that used to be an eyesore, but then we had a first-class shopping center in this urban neighborhood," Harding said. "So last week we get the news, my heart just broke. I was disgusted that it's about money. It's not about the people."
In Coal Hill, Arkansas, just a 2-hour drive from Walmart's Bentonville headquarters, the Walmart was the biggest employer in the soybean-country town of more than 1,000. Once it closes, residents will have to drive 15 miles to the nearest supermarket and pharmacy, said Coal Hill Mayor Ronnie Garner.
"It's devastating for the town," Garner said. "It's our only pharmacy, our only grocery store."