On a Sunday morning in March, Veronica Moore went to Ahart’s Market, as she often did, to prepare a weekend breakfast for her family.
On this day, however, Moore was struck by a sign on the door that read “25% off all items, everything must go.” Moore, who has been frequenting Ahart’s for over 14 years, assumed the market was having a sale in order to make room for additional inventory.
She soon learned Ahart’s was preparing for permanent closure, leaving South Bethlehem, a USDA declared “Food Desert,” with one remaining grocery store.
“My heart dropped,” she said.
Moore began shopping at Ahart’s when she first moved to Bethlehem 2007. Living then without a car, she, like many on the South Side, relied on the market for its close proximity to her home and dependably fair prices.
“There were times when I only had like $25 to my name and Ahart’s had to come through and really be able to provide for me and my family to be able to eat,” Moore said. “We have experienced some success where (Ahart’s) is no longer our only option, but I knew that there were many people around South Bethlehem where it was their only option.”
As an active community member, Moore took to Facebook to share her concerns. From there, Moore planted the seeds for what she called a “grassroots success story.”
Moore posted a status update simply asking if people had heard the news of Ahart’s closure and if anything was being done to ensure grocery access for the community.
“When you talk about grassroots efforts,” Moore said, “I asked a question and I tagged some folks in the community that I knew were very active and who would feel the same way about losing the grocery store and not having a replacement. Once I did that, it really started to get the ball rolling.”
Through conversations on Facebook, Moore connected with Anna Smith, a Bethlehem resident who previously served as director of the Community Action Development Corporation of Bethlehem, a nonprofit organization that seeks to improve the quality of life for all Bethlehem community members.
Smith was born and raised in South Bethlehem and made the decision to move back in 2015. Smith said her work with the CADCB had an “explicit anti-poverty mission” that comes through in her desire to address the issues presented by the loss of Ahart’s.
“Growing up I lived about four blocks from Ahart’s and my parents still live there,” Smith said. “I knew the importance of Ahart’s to that surrounding neighborhood as the primary source of groceries and not just basic food, but also household supplies, pet food, things like that for a lot of folks who don’t have a car in the surrounding neighborhood.”
Without Ahart’s Market, C Town Supermarket is the lone remaining full-service grocery store on the South Side.
In addition to South Bethlehem residents, Smith said many Fountain Hill residents relied on Ahart’s for its proximity to a bus station and because Fountain Hill does not have a grocery store of its own.
Like Moore, Smith’s initial reaction was to turn to the community members and hear their concerns. She said many residents were commenting on Moore’s initial Facebook post as well as on news articles that reported on the market’s closure.
“It spoke to a deeper fear of residents of our neighborhood who feel like the South Side is changing in a lot of ways and that the way it is changing doesn’t necessarily include them in its vision for the future.” – Anna Smith, South Side Resident
“And there was a lot of fear there,” Smith said. “Folks automatically were jumping to the assumption that it was going to become luxury apartments. Within those comments, to me, it spoke to a deeper fear of residents of our neighborhood who feel like the South Side is changing in a lot of ways and that the way it is changing doesn’t necessarily include them in its vision for the future.”
Smith, Moore and other concerned residents decided to create a petition. Smith said the ultimate goal of the petition was to prompt Mayor Robert Donchez and other local elected officials and council members to put pressure onto the Ahart’s property owners to ensure another grocery store would replace the market.
Smith said the petition was released on a Sunday afternoon and by Sunday night, she had heard word from the Mayor’s office.
“We as a community don’t have a lot of power over what developers do with their properties, but if we could make as much noise as possible, maybe we had a chance at influencing what happened with that site,” Smith said.
By the following Tuesday, Bethlehem City Council passed a unanimous resolution asking the mayor to secure another grocery store for the site.
According to The Morning Call, on April 30, it was confirmed by Donchez that the Ahart’s property was sold to a developer with the intention of building a full-service grocery store. The name of the buyer has not yet been released.
The property, which was last purchased in 2001 for $950,000, was officially sold on Thursday, April 30, for $2.3 million.
The current building will undergo full renovations and a new market is expected to open within six months.
Smith, Moore and a group of residents, city representatives and local organization leaders formulated an open committee that meets every two weeks to actively address the issues presented by Ahart’s closure and to communicate the needs of residents to city leadership.
On the committee is Kelly Allen, board chair of the Bethlehem Food Co-Op. Allen noted the need to communicate with the local community in order to meet the needs that Ahart’s did not.
“Ahart’s did not have their low to moderate income community members in mind. It wasn’t really a community supported grocery store,” he said.
Allen said the Co-Op has signed a lease at 250 East Broad Street with hopes of serving both the North and South Sides and engaging proactively with moderate to low-income residents.
“We’re positioned to serve that community and we are obviously going to serve all residents of Bethlehem, but what we’re going to do as we move forward is spend a significant amount of time and resources communicating with our neighbors to make sure that the store reflects their wants for a local grocery store,” Allen said. “We don’t want to just come in and state the food needs of this community. There is going to be a lot of communication.”
“We don’t want to just come in and state the food needs of this community. There is going to be a lot of communication.” –Kelly Allen, Bethlehem Food Co-Op Board Chair
In efforts to best meet the needs of the South Bethlehem community, the committee released a public survey asking residents what attributes they were looking for in a new market.
What are residents hoping to see?
Smith said the responses overwhelmingly asked for a full-service grocery store that includes a bakery, deli and abundant household goods.
According to survey results, 280 of 308 respondents listed access to fresh fruits and vegetables as their biggest priority in the next market. Respondents also listed access to fresh meats and bakery items as priorities.
“The loss of Ahart’s is creating a void in that area in regard to their access to fresh ingredients,” Allen said. “Regarding their access to fresh ingredients, healthy ingredients, there certainly has been a severe impact.”
Regarding access, price is also a significant determinant of what type of market residents are looking for. Following a 66 percent desire for full-service grocery stores, the second most requested store type was a limited access, low-cost market with 22 percent of respondents listing price as a primary concern.
Fifty-eight percent of respondents rely on SNAP benefits and use EBT cards to purchase groceries. Prior to the onset of COVID-19, 13 percent of Lehigh Valley residents were eligible for SNAP, however that number is expected to have increased significantly due to financial hardships presented by the pandemic.
Smith said quickly into her involvement, she learned of community members who were not only concerned about replacing Ahart’s with another grocer, but were also formulating a plan on what to do in the meantime.
Because over 40 percent of survey respondents do not have a car, many listed the time period until a new store opens as a pressing concern.
Smith said a key component of the committee’s success has been their partnership with the Kellyn Foundation, a local organization that strives to make healthy living a social norm.
The group organized a partnership with the Kellyn Foundation’s “Eat Real Food” Mobile Market that travels throughout the region bringing produce and whole grains to areas that lack a consistent source of abundant fresh food.
In addition to its pre-existing schedule, the Mobile Market will serve in Ahart’s parking lot every Saturday from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., until the new market opens. The Mobile Market accepts SNAP and additionally offers double SNAP benefits on some products.
The loss of Ahart’s also presents a temporary challenge to Lehigh University students and staff, specifically those without cars.
Carolina Hernandez, assistant dean and director of Lehigh’s Community Service Office and South Bethlehem resident, sits in a unique position as a member of both the local and Lehigh communities.
“That store provides important access, not just for South Bethlehem residents that are here year-round, but also for Lehigh students and some faculty and staff members who live here on the South Side as well,” Hernandez said.
Hernandez said she was grateful the City of Bethlehem was willing to hear the concerns voiced by the community and act on them and is hopeful that the new market will better serve the South Side.
“I love that the community mobilized immediately to say ‘Hey, this is an important thing for us,’” Hernandez said. “Both Lehigh students, faculty, staff and community members were in absolute agreement that, on the West end of the South Side, we need to make sure that there’s access to food. Everyone was in agreement with that and that was really powerful to hear.”
The May 1 announcement of a new grocer is a win for Smith, Moore and the Bethlehem community at large. The expected six months until the new market opens will continue to present hurdles for those dependent on Ahart’s, but consistent efforts put forth by the community indicate a brighter future for food access on the South Side.