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Dayton grocery fire: Neighbors scramble to find food, way to pay bills

A fire that destroyed the Food for Less on East Third Street in Dayton left nearby residents wondering where they will shop for food — and for those without traditional bank accounts, how to pay bills.

“It’s going to hurt this community a lot not having a grocery store,” said Jacob Bennell who’s lived about three blocks away for more than six years. “I don’t drive and my wife doesn’t drive. So yeah, it’s going to be hard on us to get groceries.”

The store closed Thursday at 8 p.m., and the fire was reported about 30-40 minutes later.

By Friday morning, the building at 3129 E. Third St. was in smoldering ruins. By Friday afternoon, heavy equipment operators were taking down walls left standing. Dayton firefighters also had their hands full Friday morning with another fire at an old soap factory on Linden Avenue.

MORE: Massive Hewitt Soap Factory fire prompts emergency demolition

Barbara Hamrick, 43, had been going to the store since elementary school, well before the nearly 14,000 square foot market that was built in 1947 became a Food For Less.

“It’s going to affect a lot of people,” Hamrick said. “Because they use this a lot for their bills. They get money orders here. They go shopping … So it’s going to affect a lot of things.”

The Food For Less fire could put another population at risk of residing in a food desert in a city already falling behind in access to nutritious, affordable food, said Laura Roesch, CEO Catholic Social Services of the Miami Valley.

“When a significant grocery store such as the one on East Third Street is destroyed in a fire, it reduces those opportunities for people to shop and to feed their families,” she said. “For low-income and vulnerable populations where transportation may be a challenge already, to have fewer places to buy the food they need for their families, presents a real challenge for people.”

MORE: Rich market, poor market: Six miles separate cornucopia, desert

The Dayton metropolitan region is dead last in Ohio for food hardship and 11th worst in the nation, according to a 2016 report by the Food Research & Action Center.

Firefighters responding to the initial 911 calls found heavy flames and evidence of an explosion, said Dayton Fire Chief Jeffrey Payne.

“The debris from the front part of the building was in the street, so we would think that may have come from an explosion,” Payne said.

The fire investigation bureau continued its work Friday into the cause of the blaze, said Dayton Fire Department Capt. Merritt Colton.

MORE: Area known for food deserts has lacked a larger store since 2008

No one was hurt in the fire. Authorities did not evacuate houses in the area, but told some nearby residents like Robbie Willis, 22, to stay inside due to the thick smoke.

“The fire was really blazing bad last night,” Willis said. “Even on my front porch it was too much to stand out there and try to watch it. There was heavy smoke coming down the whole time.”

Willis said he will miss the neighborly atmosphere the store provided.

“All of the people where friendly. They made you feel welcome,” he said. “It’s just sad that it’s gone. I have many memories with the store, and many people are going to be sad about it.”

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