The only grocery store within walking distance of Purdue’s campus is expected to close its doors for the final time this month, and when it does, Purdue’s food desert will grow.
A post on a Purdue subreddit on the website Reddit indicated over a week ago that Fresh City Market is expected to close on Jan. 19, and the store announced Thursday on its Facebook page that it was having a 20-percent-off closing sale.
Even with the grocery in its current location, though, many students living off campus in residential hotspots live in areas identified as food deserts by the United States Department of Agriculture. It has been that way since at least 2010, the earliest date that data could be obtained by The Exponent.
Popular student-living locations like Purdue Village, The Cottages on Lindberg, and Blackbird Farms are all situated in areas recognized by the USDA as food deserts, defined in urban environments as areas with at least 500 people that live more than one mile away from a large grocery store with nutritious food options. Income and vehicle access are also taken into consideration, with both impacting the areas in West Lafayette identified by the USDA.
Blackbird Farms and The Cottages on Lindberg are currently being utilized by Purdue for overflow housing. But students assigned to the off-campus amenities are still able to purchase meal plans for the University’s dining courts.
The city isn’t short of dining options. Take a jaunt through Chauncey Hill Mall and you’ll find a Taco Bell, Subway and Five Guys. A walk down Northwestern Avenue will reveal Another Broken Egg Cafe, McDonald’s, and Jimmy John’s. And buildings across campus boast their own cafes.
Fresh and nutritious produce, however, is largely absent from the areas surrounding Purdue’s campus.
The impact of food insecurity
Food insecurity on college campuses is an issue not discussed enough, according to Vanessa Pacheco, Purdue’s coordinator of civic engagement.
“For some reason we are socialized to believe in this narrative of students surviving off of ramen and free pizza from student organizations as something that’s acceptable and normal,” she said in a phone interview.
She questioned, however, whether that is the living environment the community is trying to create.
The problem isn’t unique to Purdue. Pacheco pointed to a study done in 2016 titled “Hunger on Campus” that found food insecurity to be pervasive at colleges of all sizes across the country, and it has a tangible impact on students’ performance.
“Their ability to have access to meals, we have proof that that directly affects their retention,” she said. “It directly affects their success in school.”
The study found that while students across the socioeconomic spectrum can experience the effects of food insecurity, first-generation college students are the ones most likely to struggle with the problem that often flies under the radar.
Access to higher education has been a focus for Purdue during President Daniels’ tenure; it is one of the motivations behind the long-running tuition freeze, and the controversial Kaplan University deal was pitched as a way to provide nontraditional students with a Purdue education.
But increased access brings increased responsibility, according to Pacheco, who advises the student-operated ACE Food Pantry.
“With additional inclusion and more opportunities for students that are coming from low-income backgrounds, there is going to be an increased need to support them in every possible way when they get to the University,” she said.
Pacheco is of the opinion that providing access to affordable and nutritious food is part of the formula.
The costs of goods at Fresh City Market prohibited many of the pantry’s clients from shopping there regularly, but Pacheco said that it was common for clients to supplement their allotment from ACE with fresh foods from the grocery store.
Fresh City Market filled a void the pantry could not in that respect.
The short shelf life of fresh produce makes it difficult for the food pantry to stock consistently.
“We can provide fresh items pretty frequently but not on a super-regular basis, and there’s not a huge variety,” Pacheco said. “We usually have one or two fresh items. We’ll have lettuce and jalapeños one week and then the next week we’ll have tomato and guacamole.”
But despite its best efforts, ACE Food Pantry and others like it have a difficult time replacing the integral role of grocery stores.
That doesn’t mean Pacheco and ACE won’t try.
“If (students) relied on Fresh City Market to get cabbage, if we don’t start providing that, they just don’t get it. So there’s a lot of things that we’re going to have to start thinking about,” she said.
A bid to keep Fresh City Market
It is unclear why Fresh City Market is closing. Local ownership directed The Exponent’s inquiries to its corporate partner, SpartanNash, which is headquartered in Michigan. But The Exponent’s repeated attempts to contact the company’s media representative were unsuccessful.
Erik Carlson, West Lafayette’s director of development, said he has tried to start a dialogue with SpartanNash to convince them to stay in the area, but his efforts have not been reciprocated.
“We have 2,165 new beds for students that plan on opening between now and three semesters from now,” Carlson said as he detailed the city’s pitch. “That’s something that gives (Fresh City Market) 2,165 new opportunities for customers that live within a 3/4-mile radius and are going to be walking around on campus three to five times a week anyways that would be able to go shop at their store and buy goods from them.”
Potential tax incentives were not part of the initial pitch, according to Carlson.
Fresh City Market’s price problem may boil down to an issue faced by grocery stores in urban environments everywhere — space.
“The square footage is much less than you’d see at a Meijer or Pay Less or Walmart,” Carlson said. “So often times when you have less square footage and when you have less volume in sales, the prices tend to be a little bit higher.”
And that is likely to be a problem for any grocery trying to take Fresh City Market’s place, according to Carlson. The point will have to be wrestled with by any prospective grocery interested in coming to West Lafayette because the city intends on making it a sticking point in any future negotiations to ensure the best odds for long-term success.
No matter what Fresh City Market ends up deciding to do, Carlson insisted that the city is committed to keeping a grocery near campus.
“If they do in fact decide to close — and given their responsiveness, I believe they will — we’ll do everything we can to make sure that we’re not without a grocery for a long time,” he said. “Whether it’s in the existing space at Fresh City Market or in The Village, we’ll do everything we can to fill that void.”
Luke Robinson, a graduate student studying materials science, paused to browse the store’s remaining coffee reserves on Friday afternoon.
“I’m a little sad,” he said. “I did my undergrad here and now I’m a first-year grad student, and it’s sad to see it go.”