At the corner of Simcoe and Verdun streets sits the second-oldest grocery store in Lafayette.
Guidroz Food Center has a butcher's section with a line of people wrapped around the interior waiting to buy boudin or a plate lunch. A few aisles with rice and canned goods fill the inside, and in the corner, a handful of fresh produce.
The area where Guidroz supplies groceries is a food desert — defined as "neighborhoods that lack healthy food sources" according to U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Guidroz Food Center opened in 1959. Guidroz butcher Terry Bueas, 68, grew up in north Lafayette during this time. He's watched new life be introduced and smothered out over the years.
A butcher for almost 50 years, Guidroz Food Center helped Bueas keep a job in his neighborhood after the Winn-Dixie closed about seven years ago. With the closure of most grocery stores in his neighborhoods, he's seen an increase of people coming to Guidroz.
"This is my own neighborhood," he said with a smile on his face. "It’s changed a lot. There’s growth here — in the store, in the neighborhood with more people."
The neighborhood store recently got a grant from McComb-Veazey Community House to expand its produce section.
McComb-Veazey Community House, an organization and farm in north Lafayette, through its partnership with Habitat for Humanity, received $85,000 from Republic services to invest in four businesses — Guidroz Food Center, Northside Vegan, Nina Creole and Black Cafe.
The influx of support for local grocers and restaurants is in response to the pervasive food desert in north Lafayette. However, the closure of grocery stores in predominately Black neighborhoods was a decades-old issue the community has faced due to local government traffic plans and disinvestment in growth.
Structural segregation laid out in the 1960s led to corrosive inequality in food available and life-elevation opportunities in north Lafayette.
'These highways effectively serve as moats'
Generations have seen their north Lafayette neighborhoods emptied. The first transportation scar was the railroad. The Evangeline Thruway again bisected and economically starved the communities it ran through.
The opening of Guidroz Food Center was closely followed by the Evangeline Thruway being identified for possible upgrading to interstate standards in 1968. In 1987, the Interstate 49 connector received congressional authorization and funding.
Any hesitancy to develop on the northside was now permanent. The initial 1990 plan had the six-lane connector run roughly along the same route as the thruway. A route in 2015 proposed having the 5.5-mile corridor loom overpopulated parts downtown, past St. Genevieve Catholic Church, through the LaPlace, McComb-Veazey and Freetown neighborhoods to end up near the Lafayette airport.
The 2015 Evangeline Corridor Initiative suggested "redesigning" Super 1, now one of the few grocery stores within two miles of LaPlace, McComb-Veazey and Freetown neighborhoods, and replacing it with "new commercial amenities" that "spurs higher economic return on investment opportunities."
In a 2016 Daily Advertiser article, opponents of the connector said "the same logic that divided the community with construction of Evangeline Thruway in the 1960s is being used to push the I-49 connector through the heart of the city."
Those feelings have been exacerbated as stores, job opportunities and quality of life are bled from the area.
"In a lot of ways we build these highways that effectively serve as moats," Kevin Blanchard, executive director of the Lafayette Public Trust Financing Authority working to combat the disinvestment in north Lafayette, said. "That's led to this giant emptying out. So much uncertainty for so long where people aren't sure, like 'Should we be putting money into this place or not? What will it look like in five years?'"
North Lafayette's food desert years in the making
The visual impacts of the disinvestment started with Piggly Wiggly in the early 2000s.
"It was triggered really by the Piggly Wiggly closing before the Albertson’s," Tina Bingham, executive director for the McComb-Veazey neighborhood, said. "Where there was a Piggly Wiggly, there's a beauty supply shop now. So you can go and get beautiful hair, weaves and everything but you can't get any meat, fresh produce or anything."
Then Albertsons closed Feb. 2012, with company officials stating the location could not make enough of a profit to be sustainable according to a 2014 Advertiser article. The location is now Willow Charter Academy at Northgate Mall.
Then Walmart closed its doors in March 2019 — now going to be Completeful, a shipping fulfillment service.
The latest to fall is Shoppers Value at Four Corners in Feb. 2020, which replaced the Winn-Dixie and before that it was Piggly Wiggly, the first store to close.
Now, the areas north of University Ave are stuck in the food desert cycle. The grocery store closing is a disparaging catalyst.
The first ripple of food concerns occurred when Albertson's closed. Residents began wondering where they were supposed to get their groceries. Compounding factors of time, income and transportation led people to turn to corner stores for answers Bingham said.
"We start looking at the convenience stores like, 'So where are the groceries in here?' And then you see that there's no real access to anything," Bingham said. "People are buying junk food with food stamps just to feed their family because they don't have transportation. Or they don't have the time. They’re going between jobs, and they don't have transportation. So it’s like 'Do I get my taxi driver to stop at Walmart or take me to work so that I can pay the bills to get back home?' There's all these decisions that people are juggling."
When documenting food deserts, the USDA takes into consideration three main characteristics: income level, distance to supermarkets, and vehicle access.
The 2019 USDA map of food deserts shows the majority of north Lafayette's population is not within a half-mile of a grocery store or has access to a vehicle — especially daunting considering the thruway people have to cross has a high number of fatalities.
Public transportation gives access to some full-service grocery stores but time spent en route impacts the choices — type of food bought, getting a babysitter, opting out of a shift at work — customers are forced to make.
Of those living in the census tracts designated as food deserts, over half of the residents are racial minorities according to population estimates.
Despite the emptying of stores, there hasn't been an emptying of people. Lafayette Public Trust Financing Authority mapped four grocery stores north of University Ave. Below University Ave. is 19 grocery stores.
"Low-income people still eat. Low-income people still need to get groceries," Blanchard said. "It's not that there aren't people there the way there were in the past. But it's a lot of the other drivers that, when you place up against this longtime environment of disinvestment, that it cascades."
North Lafayette wasn't built on box brand businesses. Mom-and-pop grocery stores like Guidroz Food Center were every few blocks. The small, family-owned and run stores were created from community necessity Bingham said.
From her childhood, Bingham recalls the neighborhood stores and their sense of community within. Her grandfather owned numerous stores in Fightinville and her father's family, along with other families, grew produce from their McComb-Veazey backyards.
"My family was always really connected to the land. Always growing different things," she said. "We knew where food was. Food was very accessible. It was more of a community, the community really came together."
But as time went on, the corner grocery stores closed. Fewer people had jobs that allow for discretionary spending. Residents weren't able to give back to their local businesses, having to travel to cheaper large brands to get essential items, bypassing their neighborhood convenience store.
With just a handful of scattered grocery stores on the north side of Lafayette, residents are leaving their communities to get essential items, causing an investment vacuum.
"When they walk to work, they don’t have to leave the community. You see more of that money cycling and recycling back into the community. All of our money leaves the community, even the stores. All of that leaves our community," Bingham said. " ... And as long as we keep driving over there, we'll never see any of that stuff happening here."
'We have a major problem'
The historic disinvestment on the north side of Lafayette is not new. It's talked about in local government and organizations. But creating change with those talks rarely happens Bingham said.
"I think we have a lot of conversations in Lafayette. We have a lot of plans, but we don't have a lot of action that comes along with those plans, or capital dollars and investments to go along with those plans too," Bingham said. "So I like to see something that will actually come into some kind of action. Not just a catalyst for the sake of being a catalyst. A catalyst that really is impacting the community that we can start moving forward in the near near future."
Bingham has formed one of those catalysts with McComb-Veazey Community House. She created it in 2019 after noticing the food desert wrapping its treacherous fingers around her home.
Her first step was feeding people in her community with her garden. The garden quickly graduated to a community farm now supplies a bi-monthly market and generates income.
"We're just trying to use food in different ways to activate the community and conversation, active new business and entrepreneurship, and just help to rebuild our food system," Bingham said.
McComb-Veazey Community House also acts as a "living room" where the community gathers to reconnect and preserve McComb-Veazey — one of the oldest neighborhoods in Lafayette — where generations have been raised and reside.
There's no shortage of plans coming from within communities in north Lafayette. But the northside lacks funding. While waiting for capital, developers or city development comes in and wipes away a community's plans for something the developers can afford instantly, not taking into consideration what the area has been working on or needs.
"We want to start getting ahead of the curve," Bingham said. "We've been very reactive … to a lot of things that were happening within our community. And the only way to flip that is for us to be more proactive and for us to say ... 'Where are we going to go up from this?' You can't keep spiraling back down. So let's put a pin on some of the things that we know isn't really healthy and benefiting us and say 'How do we start getting to the next step?'"
Lafayette Public Trust Financing Authority is working to ensure capital investments that are supportive of community efforts in traditionally underserved areas. The big picture Blanchard said is lowering the number of people identified in the census tracts as low income or low access by a third in the next five years.
The trust, through a recent fellowship, plans on prebaking solutions for north Lafayette by forming a pipeline of deals for capital investment. The group is not going to build a grocery store, clap and walk away Blanchard said.
"You don't get to a problem like this overnight. And it's not just one thing. And there's not just one fix," Blanchard said. " ... We have a major problem. Half of the city is in a food desert. So like, how do we start to address that ... because this is a really good example of what happens when you're not making investments."
Resources are the only way to fix it Bingham said. Communities can have ideas for every block of their neighborhood but without resources and allies that push purposefully disadvantaged areas into conversations, onto policy levels, north Lafayette will be left "spinning and not going nowhere."
"To have (Lafayette Public Trust Financing Authority, United Way, Lafayette Community Development Department) together and developing a plan that can start making intentional investments in our community - food access, quality of life issues - I think is something that's positive," Bingham said. "The thing is, what does it look like? We don't know yet."
Contact Victoria Dodge at email@example.com or on Twitter @Victoria_Dodge