FAIRFIELD, Ala. — Wal-Mart’s decision to shutter 154 stores across the country means that, starting Thursday, residents without cars in a neighborhood near historically black Miles College outside Birmingham, Alabama, will have to cross dangerous roadways on foot to get fresh produce and meat.

Come Friday, folks in Coal Hill, Arkansas, will need to drive 15 miles to get to the nearest supermarket and pharmacy. Low-income neighbors of Wichita State University in Kansas, too, will be losing quick access to fresh groceries.

The store closings by the world’s largest retailer are creating three new food deserts in these neighborhoods with nearly 15,000 residents combined, according to an Associated Press analysis.

Another 31 neighborhoods in 15 states will lack any place that sells fresh produce and meat once the last of the Wal-Mart stores slated for closure turns off the lights Feb. 5. However, poverty is not so pervasive in those neighborhoods that they would qualify as food deserts, as defined by the federal government.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture considers a neighborhood a food desert if at least a fifth of residents live in poverty and a third live more than a mile from a supermarket in urban areas, or more than 10 miles in rural areas, where residents are more likely to have cars. Nearly 9,000 neighborhoods are considered food deserts by that definition, according to the USDA’s most recent review.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. has been at the forefront of efforts by national food retailers to end food deserts.

Almost five years ago, several major food retail companies pledged to build or renovate more stores in or near food deserts by mid-2016 as part of Michelle Obama’s campaign to reduce childhood obesity. Only Wal-Mart and an independent store that is part of a cooperative had met their goals for the first lady’s group, Partnership for a Healthier America, as of last year.

Wal-Mart had pledged to build or renovate up to 300 such stores, and by last year the company had built or renovated 392 stores, with the majority of those being new stores.

A Wal-Mart spokesman said the company is still committed to ending food deserts. It is making donations to food banks in communities where stores are closing, increasing the budgets of stores in neighboring locations and also working with potential buyers of its stores’ properties to bring other supermarkets to the affected neighborhoods, said spokesman Brian Nick.

The company also said it is sticking with its plans to open nearly as many stores over the coming year as it is closing now, although not necessarily near the locations it is leaving.

“We are working with the communities on how we can be helpful,” Nick said.

In Fairfield, Alabama, where a U.S. Steel Corp. plant laid off about 1,100 workers last year, the closure of the Wal-Mart supercenter will eliminate 300 more jobs, said U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell.

To get to the next-closest grocery stores, a Piggly Wiggly and a Save-A-Lot, residents who don’t drive will have to cross highways with up to six lanes of traffic, medians and no sidewalks.

Buses run through Fairfield about once an hour on weekdays, less frequently on Saturdays, and there is no service on Sundays, when many people do their shopping.


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