Downtown Winston-Salem is often described in many ways: historic, artistic, and innovative. However, downtown’s cultured art scene and local culinary delights often mask another description of Winston-Salem: food desert.
The United States Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service estimates that 23.5 million currently live in food deserts, defined as an urban area where residents have limited access to fresh fruits, vegetables, and affordable food. In Winston-Salem alone, there are 40 neighborhoods currently designated as food deserts. One of the largest of these is downtown.
Delray Byrd, a resident of Crystal Towers, a public-housing high-rise on West Fifth Street, relies on his sister to drive him 1.6 miles to the closest grocery store, the Food Lion on New Walkertown Road. There, he purchases his bread, canned goods, and meats on the 14th of every month when he receives his food stamps.
“I’ll walk to Ronnie’s [Ronnie’s Country Store] for the occasional soda, but downtown is getting too expensive and we have to go way out to find affordable food,” he said.
Byrd, who has lived in Winston-Salem since he was six, has noticed a change in downtown demographics over the past 44 years. Describing downtown as “good-looking,” Byrd talked about the new wave of residents downtown and his surprise of seeing people eating outside on restaurant patios.
However, sitting on a bench outside Crystal Towers, listening to his hand-held radio in the 30 degree weather, Byrd was describing a transforming community that has now excluded him and his neighbors.
Frank Gordon, 40, has called Winston-Salem “home” all his life; however, his address has changed a number of times over the years. Having recently served a prison sentence for ten years, Gordon now describes his home downtown as a place “where food is served,” alleviating limited food accessibility with the temporary solution of a homeless shelter.
However, Gordon is still familiar with the difficulties of grocery shopping for downtown residents.
“Who wants to haul a month’s worth of groceries on a bus? When I would take the bus system to the grocery store, it seemed to take me 3 hours,” said Gordon, referring to the bus schedules.
Gordon described the lack of affordable downtown as inconvenient since none of his friends have cars, including friend Steven Prescott, who was talking with Gordon outside the CVS Pharmacy on West Fourth Street. Prescott, was leaving the store, after purchasing a handful of groceries, which were notably more expensive than options at traditional grocery stores. For example, an 18.6 ounce can of Cambell’s Chunky Chicken Noodle soup costs $3.39 in CVS, as compared to $1.98 in Walmart.
In 2011, The Food Research and Action Center’s Hardship Report named Winston-Salem the hungriest city in the United States for families with children and statistics show that the inequality amongst Winston-Salem residents will only continue to rise.
Prescott, 46, moved to downtown Winston-Salem two years ago and remarked on the stark socioeconomic differences among downtown residents. Discussing the new additions to “restaurant row” downtown, Prescott joked that he and his friends can’t stand still downtown “without getting a ticket” for loitering.
Although Prescott shared a laugh with Gordon over the joke, his face quickly returned serious as he reflected on downtown as a community.
With downtown Winston-Salem restaurants offering items like “Pan Braised Monkfish Ramen” for $25, “Gourmet White” pizzas for $23.50, and “Maple Bourbon Salmon” for $18, Gordon says restaurant patrons do not want folks like him on the streets outside the restaurants.
“There is basically two types of people who live downtown,” said Prescott. “The haves and the have-nots. With the new restaurants and housing being built, there’s a squeeze to push people like us out.”