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Demetrius Hunter sees a worrisome pattern among non-profits providing food to his community in Southeast Raleigh, North Carolina, where grocery stores are inaccessible for many residents.
"I have seen the trucks come from these non-profits that give food away, and they are giving the people donuts, cakes, and pies." Hunter said in our phone conversation. "There are customers of mine who would miss a couple of deliveries and I would check to see how they were. Neighbors would tell me they are in the hospital. Some had legs amputated. Some never made it out."
Hunter, the CEO of Grocers On Wheels and its non-profit arm Southeast Raleigh Vicinity Emerging (S.E.R.V.E), is continuing his family's 80-year legacy of providing fresh fruits and vegetables and other nutritious foods to elderly and underserved residents in Southeast Raleigh. The work has always been steady, but there has been a marked increase since COVID-19 reached North Carolina.
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The zip code with the third highest infection rate in the state is 27610, which comprises the Southeast quadrant of Raleigh and Wake County, with a population that is 64 percent Black. Drive down one of the main corridors of this area of town—New Bern Avenue, Rock Quarry Road, or Martin Luther King Blvd—and you will see dozens of fast food restaurants, corner stores and smoke shops. Only 11 full service grocery stores serve the area's 78,475 residents, or one store per 7,134 people. To put this into perspective, the zip code 27613—whose population is 75 percent white—has eight grocery stores serving 42,933 residents, or one for every 5,366 people. Healthier restaurants—like Panera Bread or Chipotle—are also common in those whiter neighborhoods. In Southeast Raleigh, you will see Bojangles and Cookout instead. Institutionalized issues related to being undercounted in the Census, as well as being under-resourced and under-represented in local government, allow developers to push projects that create greater food inequality.
Local governments often shift resources and responsibility for solutions onto large regional non-profit corporations, which often rely heavily on shelf-stable, processed foods. While recipients may get some fresh produce, meat, and dairy products, they also get foods that are high in sodium and sugar. For elderly people and those with chronic health conditions like diabetes and high blood pressure, for whom a healthy diet is a manner of life or death, this food distribution model often forces them to waste much needed resources to replace processed food with healthier options (if they are able to safely take the trip to a grocery store). Hunter expresses frustration, not just at the poor quality of food, but also about the hundreds and thousands of tax dollars and unfettered opportunities these non-profits are given by local governments to partner with other public institutions while organizations like his are ignored and shut out.
"When you go to a city politician (for funding or an opportunity), the first words out of their mouth are, 'Well have you talked to this particular entity?' And it really hurts because you try to figure out, like, why are they continually asking you to go to this entity? Is it because you are of another race? Is it because (the politician) thinks (the non-profit) knows it all? And if that's the case, you know, why are they serving pies and cakes and donuts constantly?'"
Since the news broke that COVID-19 has a deadlier impact on Black people than their white counterparts, there has been a palpable shift in the public response to the virus. Some news pundits and politicians, including U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams and Van Jones of CNN, shifted their conversations about prevention from social distancing and basic hygiene, to asserting that Black people are dying at higher rates from COVID-19 because of behaviors that harm their health, rather than from the impacts of centuries of systemic racism in housing, food systems, environment, and the workplace, along with poor access to quality healthcare.
Though the political and economic odds are stacked against the residents of Southeast Raleigh, they have built their own businesses and non-profit organizations to fill the gaps. Malaika Shabaka of Juiced Smoothie Bar, along with Hunter, are two business owners who have made it their life's work to uplift their community through reconnecting with Black traditions of eating and healing.
Grocers On Wheels began in 1928 when Hunter's father Zelb and uncle Raymond started to sell fruits and vegetables from the family's garden in Johnston County to their city-dwelling friends in the housing projects and segregated neighborhoods of Raleigh.
"They complained that the produce there was of poor quality, and Raymond wanted to earn enough money to buy a cart to hitch to their mule," explained Hunter, "After World War II, my father picked up where he and Raymond left off. Soon he became known as southeast Raleigh's 'Vegetable Man'." In a time before supermarkets or integration, Black Raleighites had their own markets and means for getting the goods and services that they needed. The Hunter's grocery cart wasn't just a food delivery service, it provided an opportunity for the neighborhoods to gather together. Hunter would pull the cart (later, the truck) in front of Chavis Heights or Washington Terrace and residents would come and pick through his goods, ask questions, check on each other's families, and catch up on the news of the times. Hunter was especially concerned with the elderly and the single mothers who lived in the projects, and shopping day was the perfect opportunity to make sure they were getting along.
"I have seen the trucks come from these non-profits that give food away, and they are giving the people donuts, cakes, and pies."
By the late 1990s, many of those Black communities disappeared, displaced by HOPE VI, a federal program designed to "revitalize the worst public housing projects in the United States into mixed-income developments." It eradicated Hunter's customer base. The wealthier, whiter families moving into the revitalized developments didn't know him and weren't comfortable with buying their groceries off of someone's truck without paperwork and credentials. Zelb Hunter, then in his seventies, was looking to retire. To continue their mission, the Hunters became licensed meat handlers, created a web presence, and also adopted a card reading system to be able to process EBT payments. They expanded their territory to surrounding towns in the southeast quadrant of Wake County, like Knightdale and Clayton (where many displaced residents of Raleigh ended up), as well as serving Durham, Johnston, and Orange counties.
In 2004, as HOPE VI eroded Black communities in Raleigh, Makaila Kashaka moved from Jamaica Queens, New York to Raleigh for a new job. Kashaka was raised in a family that prized its Black heritage, in which food was medicine. Celebrated scholars of afrocentrism like Dr. John Hendrik Clarke and herbalist Queen Afua were regular guests in their home. In 2008, she went into business for herself and opened BLC Gallery Salon and Spa on Rock Quarry Road. Kashaka's clients would sit down and share with her the ailments they were dealing with—high blood pressure, diabetes, and other conditions. Kashaka would share the wisdom she gained from her family.
The Hunter's grocery cart wasn't just a food delivery service, it provided an opportunity for the neighborhoods to gather together.
One client in particular came in one day to get her hair done and she began to feel dizzy. "She wasn't someone who had any obvious health issues. She was slim, she was relatively young." When Kashaka reached out a couple of days later to see how she was, the client said that she was diagnosed with stomach cancer. In her shock and sadness, Kashaka was reminded of a goal on her bucket list—opening a juice shop to provide healing food options for her community.
She started small, whipping together personalized drinks for her salon clients. But then, after the urging of actress and comedian Kim Cole, she officially opened Juiced in November 2018. The community instantly embraced her shop. Much like the salon, Kashaka fostered a sense of open communication in her shop and her customers began to ask her about what foods and herbs are helpful for different ailments and conditions they were experiencing. Juiced has slowly transformed into a health food store, carrying items like elderberry syrup and black seed oil — ingredients she was raised on in Queens.
Demetrius Hunter and his father, Zelb Hunter, who founded what became Grocers on Wheels with Zelb's brother Raymond.
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Hunter started having similar conversations with his customers when he took over Grocers On Wheels in 2012. One of the first changes he made after taking the reins in that year was replacing pork with smoked turkey, a healthier companion to the giant bright green collards that are a staple in his Horn of Plenty boxes. Hunter provides other well loved foods, like sweet potatoes, hoop cheese, and locally bottled muscadine juice. He also includes other produce that isn't typically grown locally because, "You don't know what kinds of nutrients a customer needs or tastes a customer has. So I offer things like oranges and bananas so that people can have access to what they need for their families."
The impact of Hunter's and Kashaka's businesses are far reaching, from providing jobs to young Black men in the neighborhood, to helping individuals manage their health conditions and wean off of prescription medications. In the midst of the pandemic, their work has become more crucial than ever.
Hunter, like his father before him, still prioritizes his elderly customers. Getting to the grocery store was hard enough before coronavirus struck, in part due to Raleigh's infamous public transportation system, which is widely seen as inadequate. But now that travel and being in public spaces has become especially dangerous for elders, many are facing even greater risk of food insecurity.
"It can be the younger people educating the older people, the blue collar educating the white collar."
Despite difficulties getting access to public resources, Hunter's perseverance was rewarded in 2017 with a unique collaboration with Wake County Human Services (WCHS). Grocers On Wheels became WCHS' first independent food vendor to sell goods on-premises. Now families who pick up their SNAP benefits from inside the building can walk out into the parking lot and buy fresh, quality produce and groceries. Hunter also created a program for Durham County Schools with the help of the city's public health director, Gayle Harris, to teach about nutrition and the importance of healthy eating. Most recently, Hunter partnered with the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association and other funders to provide free produce and grocery boxes for service industry workers across the Triangle.
As Kashaka's customers became increasingly interested in herbal teas and other food-based wellness products, she increased her inventory, created a curb-side pickup operation, and established a community bulletin board in the store to inform customers about other local business owners in the wellness field, like fitness trainers and vegan chefs.
"(Juiced) attracts not only the health conscious, but those that are in need," Kashaka said.. "And that's the part that really grabs at my heartstrings because conversations that transpire in here are so amazing! It can be the younger people educating the older people, the blue collar educating the white collar. It's each one helping another one, and that's what brings me to tears."