This story originally appeared in the Oct. 6 edition of the Weekly LINK Reader.
“Life-changing” is how some Dee Felice Market shoppers describe the grocery’s smoked chicken salad. The dish is one of the market’s top sellers, consistently snatched up like hotcakes.
“We go through about 50 pounds of chicken a week,” proprietor Shelly DeFelice-Nelson told LINK nky.
Located at 527 Main St. in Covington’s historic Mainstrasse Village, Dee Felice Market is a small, independent neighborhood grocer that is the brainchild of DeFelice-Nelson and her husband, Patrick Nelson – both former restaurateurs who previously owned a New Orleans-style restaurant of the same name next door.
In the 20th century, Covington was home to many small neighborhood markets similar to Dee Felice. People who lived around the block could walk to those stores to pick up meat, bread, produce and other specialty grocery items.
But the prevalence of big-box supermarkets forced many of these markets to close. These superstores consolidated customer bases and put services like the bakery and deli all under one roof. Their convenience, supply and pricing made it increasingly difficult for smaller stores to compete.
Additionally, these supermarkets often move to suburban or even rural communities due to the availability and cost of land, zoning laws and access to roadways.
In urban areas specifically, the closure of these neighborhood markets has left a vacuum. In urban Northern Kentucky neighborhoods, dollar stores such as Family Dollar and Dollar General are one of the primary options. Neither offers high-quality produce or protein options. The lack of nutritious food can have adverse effects on the community and its residents in the form of poor diets and diet-related conditions such as obesity or diabetes, a U.S. Department of Agriculture study found.
There is a gap between the type of service a neighborhood grocery store like Dee Felice can offer and that of a superstore like Walmart. These conditions in urban, and rural, communities can lead to food deserts – areas where residents’ access to affordable, healthy food options is restricted or nonexistent due to the absence of grocery stores within convenient traveling distance. Poverty is a driving factor behind food deserts, according to Feed America, a charity working to end hunger in the United States.
Still, small markets like Dee Felice play an important role in neighborhoods’ food economy. These stores are merely endangered, not yet extinct – at least in Covington.
Dee Felice Market lines its shelves with locally grown produce, Kentucky Proud products and homemade, freshly baked bread, in addition to a small number of name-brand items. Its primary customer base is neighborhood residents looking to scoop up small items before walking back home.
“We feel a little niche for people that just need maybe three or four items, or they’re baking and they don’t have any chocolate chips, or they ran out of sugar or something like that, or they need coffee for the morning, or there are people that are celebrating something like a wedding and are here for a weekend,” she said.
When they first considered opening their store, DeFelice-Nelson said she and her husband consulted with the owners of Madison’s in Cincinnati’s Findlay Market.
“We were really interested as to how they were doing since the Kroger opened up not too far from them Downtown,” DeFelice-Nelson said. “I figured if that doesn’t hurt their business, then we can do this.”
Their biggest competition? Kroger, DeFelice-Nelson said.
Headquartered across the Ohio River in downtown Cincinnati, Kroger is one of the top five largest food retailers in the world. It’s a Fortune 500 company with annual revenues exceeding $100 billion. Kroger stands in stark contrast to Dee Felice Market: the wholesalers they buy from, the size of their staff and where they are located.
In total, there are 12 Kroger locations in Northern Kentucky, including two in Covington alone. Kroger owns the Northern Kentucky grocery market, but it isn’t the only option. Other supermarket brands such as Meijer, Walmart, Target, Trader Joe’s, Remke Markets and potentially Publix are all vying for a slice of the Northern Kentucky grocery market.
The majority of these supermarkets are located along the main thoroughfares in Northern Kentucky: US 27 in Campbell County and Interstates 71/75 in Boone and Kenton counties. For shoppers living in suburban areas near or along the Interstate 275 corridor, access to these supermarkets and, therefore, food, is generally only a short drive away.
But what if a person doesn’t live in one of these suburban areas? What if they live far out in the country, like in southern Kenton or Campbell counties? What about in the urban core of Covington or Newport? People in those areas may still have access to these stores, but they may not have the financial resources or available transportation to regularly travel to those stores.
“I would venture to say it’s food insecurity,” said Kennedy Ruebusch, agency relations manager at Master Provisions in Florence – a nonprofit that collaborates with other nonprofit agencies and ministries to distribute resources such as food to people in need.
The U.S. Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion defines food insecurity as a household-level economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food.
Like many places, Northern Kentucky has residents who experience food insecurity on a daily basis. A Feeding America database listed the food insecurity rate of Boone County at 7.1%, Kenton County at 10.1% and Campbell County at 9.8%.
Additionally, research shows people of color are more likely to experience food insecurity. A 2021 USDA study found that nearly 20% of Black individuals lived in a household that was food insecure.
“The areas that we see that are commonly getting asked for help are the Northern Kentucky river cities – more urban areas of Northern Kentucky,” Master Provisions Development Manager Travis Nipper said. “Then there are the more rural areas, so the counties, as well. It’s almost like there’s kind of like this geographical band in between the two.”
Some of the primary causes of food insecurity include poverty, low income, unemployment, and lack of access to healthcare and affordable housing, according to Feeding America.
Nipper said various economic pressures often lead to food insecurity in Northern Kentucky.
“Just issues of unemployment and underemployment combined with inflation, I think what that has done is just put a lot of families in the margin for error, so to speak, which is so much smaller for families right now,” Nipper said.
Food prices rose by 4.9% from July 2022 to July 2023, according to a consumer price index report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The report highlights a combination of factors that have led to the steady rise of food prices, such as inflation and pandemic-related supply chain disruptions. At the same time, food production costs have increased an estimated 4.1% in 2023, according to the USDA.
Besides rising costs, Northern Kentucky residents experiencing food insecurity sometimes don’t have access to reliable transportation, which can affect how often they are able to travel to the grocery store. The Transit Authority of Northern Kentucky, or TANK, is the only public transit system in the region, leaving options limited for alternative modes of transportation.
Diving deeper into the numbers, residents within ZIP codes that include Northern Kentucky river cities have some of the highest percentages of occupied households with no vehicles available, according to the BE NKY Atlas.
More than 16 percent of people in the 41016 ZIP code, which includes Ludlow, don’t have a vehicle available to them, according to the Atlas.
In the 41011 ZIP code, which includes Covington and parts of Fort Wright and Fort Mitchell, that number is over 17%. And across the Licking River in Campbell, in the 41071 ZIP code that includes Newport and Southgate, just under 14% of people don’t have access to a personal vehicle.
“I think at the end of the day, it’s having to make a choice over, ‘Do I have a car, or do I have proper food on the table?’” Nipper said. “Some parents think about skipping a meal or skipping a couple of meals a day so that the kids can eat. So, they’re just making those tough choices.”
Master Provisions partners with local soup kitchens, shelters, food pantries, churches and school programs to distribute a mix of fruits, vegetables, bakery items, snack items, frozen items and canned goods rescued from grocery stores and other retailers. At the moment, Master Provisions is working with over 262 nonprofit organizations, nearly half of which are in Northern Kentucky, Ruebusch said.
“It’s funny because all the food that comes in, those corporations have deemed not worthy, and then we see it, and it’s still good,” Ruebusch said.
Additionally, Master Provisions is part of the Northern Kentucky Safety Net Alliance food committee, a collective of over 150 nonprofit organizations, government agencies and faith-based organizations in the region to help provide an additional safety net for people.
Master Provisions works alongside large supermarket chains like Kroger and Costco, as well as distributors like Tyson, to rescue food that is either mislabeled, expired or that is cleared when the supermarkets wipe inventory. Those food items are considered spoilage, or the waste or loss of food material that occurs during the manufacturing process. Ruebusch estimates that approximately 10% of food items they receive each month are considered unsalvageable.
Master Provisions owns its own fleet of trucks that venture to food distribution warehouses to pick up food. They then return it to their own warehouse, organize and label their supply, and display it for food banks to pick up and put in their own inventory.
“We have these upstream relationships with Kroger, food manufacturers like Flowers Bakery for bread, Costco, we maintain those relationships, and then the downstream relationships are with the 262 smaller nonprofits that are essentially on the front lines,” Nipper said. “Where we see a lot of those partnerships grow are in those geographical areas that we mentioned.”
On the other hand, neighborhood grocery stores like Dee Felice Market fill in the gaps where large supermarket chains cannot. West Covington may not meet the standard definition of a “food desert,” but it does for a “food swamp.” Healthline.com defines a food swamp as a neighborhood or geographic area with a greater concentration of outlets that sell less nutritious foods, such as fast food.
Dee Felice Market is within a half-mile of multiple fast food restaurants such as Burger King, McDonald’s, Gold Star and White Castle. The closest supermarket is the Madison Avenue Kroger, which is 1.3 miles away, or about a 29-minute walk. For many of the residents in West Covington’s MainStrasse and Mutter Gottes neighborhood, Dee Felice Market provides a convenient, walkable option for grocery shopping.
Neighborhood grocery stores also offer competitive prices compared to large supermarket chains. While supermarket giants can cut deals with wholesalers, neighborhood grocery stores have found other ways to remain competitive. Notably, maintaining good relationships with wholesalers and local suppliers can help independent stores craft affordable deals for bulk food orders. There is less corporate tape to jump through, oftentimes allowing store managers to speak directly with suppliers, cutting out the middleman.
“A lot of people think that when you go into a smaller market like ours, it’s going to be expensive because that’s how you make it. But we don’t do that,” DeFelice-Nelson said. “Our prices are very close to Kroger’s pricing, if not the same. We’re not overpriced at all because we want to stay competitive. We want to be the right fit for our customers.”
LINK nky visited a Dollar General located at 1722 Madison Ave. and a Kroger at 1525 Madison Ave. to compare prices for a half-gallon of milk, carton of eggs, loaf of bread and bushel of bananas with the prices at Dee Felice’s.
When comparing Dee Felice’s prices of those products to Dollar General and Kroger, LINK nky found that they are slightly more expensive than the in-house brands for the two store chains. Some items at Dee Felice are comparable to Dollar General and Kroger, while others vary.
Items such as a loaf of bread are more expensive because Dee Felice only sells two brands of bagged, loafed bread. Instead, it chooses to focus on freshly baked, homemade breads, which are some of the most popular items in the store, DeFelice-Nelson said. A loaf of Sara Lee Artesano bakery bread at Dee Felice costs $4.79, but DeFelice-Nelson said most customers aren’t shopping there to buy a loaf of white, sandwich bread. In comparison, Dollar General sells a loaf of its generic-brand bread for $1.50. A loaf of Kroger’s generic-brand white bread costs $1.99.
At Dollar General, a carton of a dozen eggs costs $1.65, while at Kroger it costs $1.59. In comparison, Dee Felice sells a carton of free-range Fischer Family Farms eggs for $4.89. A half-gallon of 2% milk at Dollar General costs $2.30. At Kroger? $1.89. Dee Felice’s half-gallon of Prarie Farms 2% milk costs $2.49.
The Madison Avenue Dollar General does not offer produce like bananas, while Kroger and Dee Felice do. Kroger sells bananas for 49 cents a pound, while Dee Felice sells them for 99 cents a pound. This demonstrates the lack of healthy options many shoppers in this district face if they rely on Dollar General for groceries.
All of these items could be purchased at neighborhood grocery stores when DeFelice-Nelson was growing up, she said. Those were far more common, ingrained into the fabric of the city. In fact, they were a quintessential aspect of urban life across the United States. DeFelice-Nelson recalled visiting such stores during her childhood. Specifically, she recalled that there were “over 200 local grocery stores in Covington alone.”
“My grandmother lived in North Fairmount (Cincinnati), and there was a local grocery store and butcher shop on the first floor,” DeFelice-Nelson said. “We went down there every day and shopped.”
The advent of large supermarket chains such as Kroger, Walmart and others squeezed out the need for many smaller grocery stores. Instead of going to a local butcher shop or deli in their neighborhood to purchase meat, shoppers could now just go to Kroger and get competitively priced goods, along with everything else they need in one place. Economies of scale helped squeeze out many small grocery stores.
In relation to food insecurity, urban residents had to travel far less to get access to fresh produce, protein and other dietary staples. When the industry consolidated, so, too, did the choices many people had for food.
Dee Felice Market isn’t the only community grocery store helping combat food swamps and food deserts. The prevalence of food delivery services such as Kroger Delivery has helped customers in rural areas gain access to inventory from larger supermarkets, assuming they can afford the delivery fee. Local farmers markets like the Covington Farmers Market also offer people living within urban and rural food swamps access to fresh produce.
In the fight against food insecurity – and preventing food swamps and deserts – nonprofits, neighborhood grocery stores, and large supermarket chains oftentimes must work hand-in-hand. While there is an economic incentive for small and large markets to compete, there is an even greater need to provide quality and nutritious food to all members of the community.