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A devastating fire cost this Dayton neighborhood its only grocery store, and services are struggling to keep up

When fire destroyed an East Dayton grocery store this month, food advocates say it revealed how fragile access to healthy food is for many Dayton residents with low incomes and poor options for transportation.

“The needs aren’t always in other countries,” said Carol Gilbert, the director of a food pantry in East Dayton. “They’re right out our back door.”

Soon after a Nov. 9 fire destroyed the Food For Less store at 3129 E. Third St., Hearth Community Place, where Gilbert works, provided food to more than 100 new families. The group already helps provide food for 500 families.

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

“We see seniors who have to make a choice between having their medicines and their food. We see military families who just can’t make ends meet. We see a lot of working class people who just can’t make ends meet,” Gilbert said.

Poverty and food-insecurity advocates consider an area a food desert if residents there do not have reasonable access to affordable, nutritious food.

The problem that turns the loss of one grocery store into a neighborhood crisis has been simmering for the past 15 years, said Tony Hall, the region’s former Democratic congressman and former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Agency for Food and Agriculture.

“We went from a hunger-free community to a community that was in a way devastated,” Hall said. “When you lose 40,000 manufacturing jobs that pay $28-$30 an hour with benefits, you really lose something.”

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. More than 16 percent of Ohio households were food insecure between 2013 and 2015, according to a United States Department of Agriculture study.

One resident, Aaron Ellison, said he must walk a mile and a half one-way to another store for food. He doesn’t have transportation and can’t afford bus fare, he said.

“I ain’t got nothing,” said Ellison, 27, now living with his sister nearby. “This was the cheapest store to go to.”

Residents near the Food For Less are just starting to feel the loss of the store. Some parts of the city, Hall said, have been dealing for years with a lack of access to affordable food.

“Almost all of the west side is a food desert, and most of the north side,” he said. “Now with this grocery store on the east side burning down, we have a real problem.”

The former ambassador established The Hall Hunger Initiative in 2015, a partnership with the United Way of the Greater Dayton Area. The initiative collaborates with community stakeholders to reduce food insecurity and increase access to nutritional, affordable food.

Heroes of the East

On a fence around a charred heap of cinder block and steel, a sign now hangs: “Food For Less: Our hunger heroes on the East.”

Since the fire Annie Hensley, a resident, now picks up groceries for neighbors or drives them to the nearest Kroger store on Smithville Road, a round-trip of more than three miles.

Hensley said she is lucky because she has a car.

“Oh Lord, there’s so many people that can’t get to the grocery. Some of them don’t have money for the bus,” she said. “I try to help and do what I can for everybody.”

Hensley, 59, said there are convenience stores closer to Kroger that sell food, but they charge more.

“They’re kind of expensive and a lot of people don’t have the money to pay those prices,” she said.

The food sold in convenience stores is not only expensive, Hall said, but it’s often not very nutritious. Also a bus trip to a relatively close store takes time away from other things. And it’s harder for shoppers to purchase in bulk, which can be a way to save money, he said.

“They can’t carry much. Their children can’t carry much. It’s a three-hour deal of which they probably can’t afford in the first place. It’s a hardship.” he said. “You have to have a grocery store where they are.”

To help bridge the gap, mobile food pantries sponsored by Kroger will be in the neighborhood beginning Nov. 29 to serve families impacted by the fire. Today, residents in the affected ZIP Code may take part in a food distribution at The FoodBank from 10 to 11 a.m.

The first mobile distribution will be Nov. 29 from 11 a.m. to noon at Laborers’ Local 1410.

RELATED: Food relief set for East Dayton families in wake of grocery store fire

Michelle L. Riley, CEO of The Foodbank, said partners like Kroger and Laborers’ Local 1410 will help ensure East Dayton residents have access to fresh food while they deal with the loss of the store.

“Dayton is a town full of generous people who care about community,” she said. “Together, we will make life a little easier for our neighbors impacted by this tremendous loss.”

The building was a total loss and it could be some time before the cause of the fire is determined, said Dayton Fire Department spokesman Bryan Adams.

“A lot of damage makes it harder to investigate,” he said.

Pledge to rebuild

Lutfi Hussein, the owner of Food For Less, said the fire was “devastating.”

Hussein, who also owns the People’s Market on North Main Street, said he is determined to rebuild Food For Less, but future plans will be guided by the amount of any insurance settlement.

“It was never in our mind to put the clients or our customers in any hardship,” he said. “We are as much victims as they are and I hope one day we’ll put it back together — and soon — and be able to have them back again. I understand what they are going through and sympathize.”

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