Why Todd Gardenhire is Right About Urban Chattanooga Food Deserts

By Patrick D. Hampton –

State Senator Todd Gardenhire is under fire for making an observation about inner-city Chattanooga. During his interview with WTVC NewsChannel 9, he discussed the importance of improving access to grocery stores for poorer communities, citing his proposed legislation to bring more of these businesses to key neighborhoods. Gardenhire explained how some residents in these areas are living off of food from gas station and convenience stores, and that eating “fried chicken” every day can be bad for one’s health. I feel like many of us agree.

But what, exactly, was wrong with what Gardenhire stated? He only described one of the realities of living in underprivileged urban neighborhoods which his campaign seeks to remedy through access to grocers. We know that this can offer greater food variety with better nutrition in a closer proximity — a privilege enjoyed by many of our suburban residents. His comments weren’t meant to insult anyone’s economic status, but to highlight a problem that no one has seemed to solve.

Of course his political opponent and the city mayor seem to believe that Gardenhire’s comments were farfetched. However, the outrage is a contradiction, especially considering how city lawmakers and the urban community celebrated a new Save-A-Lot on Dotson Avenue. When opened, not only would this bring better quality food to residents, it would create more job opportunities. This is a win to those of us who believe eliminating food deserts is a good idea at all.

Both Mayor Andy Berke and Gardenhire agree on the importance of grocery stores for the residents of a predominantly black community. But does actually stating the reasons why make Gardenhire a racist? In an effort to move the goal posts in a statement to the Associated Press, Gardenhire’s opponent said, “these issues affect all Tennesseans, rural or urban, regardless of race.”

But that’s contrary to a recent report published in 2019 that highlighted Hamilton County food deserts and the impact on residents. The report states that 11 of the 16 census tracts considered to be food deserts are located within predominantly African American communities.

Is this the time to dilute an issue that puts the black community front and center? We hear much ado about “black lives matter,” but outrage ensues when issues affecting the black community are actually addressed by a white lawmaker who has the courage to step outside of his skin to make a difference. Gardenhire’s message resonates with the fact that black lives do indeed matter. His opponent entertains that this issue affects all communities, and that sounds akin to “All Lives Matter” rhetoric.

It’s as if white conservative leaders can’t win for losing. They’re criticized for not doing enough but also chastised for stating the obvious. And yet we as a community are surprised when our black neighborhoods receive little to no help at all. Frustrating doesn’t begin to describe it.

As media hop on the outrage bandwagon, I stand firmly in defense of Gardenhire’s message. No one can say that his address was incorrect. It’s just that some don’t feel he was had the qualifying skin color to say it. But if we are to make an impact with the laser precision we need to be effective in these communities, we — citizens of all backgrounds — need to be as honest as possible about the issues plaguing the people instead of biting the hand that feeds.







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