A grocery store is essential to a vibrant urban neighborhood. They are a sign that people live there– they walk down the sidewalk, have conversations with their neighbors, and pick up a bag of apples and a quart of milk. Neighborhoods lacking a good grocery store are a little desolate, those who live in them depend more heavily on petroleum (aka cars), convenience stores, and often have less healthy diets. Basically, grocery stores are a really, really good thing for health, budgets, and the environment.

On the other end of my neighborhood, a particular type of grocery store is going out of business. A discount Latino market, it served up arepas next to frozen yuca and quinoa to a neighborhood made up of a blend of students, immigrants, and young families. The produce may not have always been perfectly unblemished, but it was eminently affordable. This was a store where people bought 10 pound bags of black beans, squash, and peppers, as well as meats, rice and ice cream. Hi Lo certainly sold soda and chips, but offered more types of corn (dried corn, hominy, corn grits, corn meal, corn flour, corn tortillas, corn arepas, blue corn tortillas, blue corn meal…) than coke. I think they even offered more types of dried beans than soda.

Basically, it was a good place to go for real food, especially when your budget was tight. The processed food was present but not dominant and for $12.00 you could fill a basket with fruit, vegetables, beans, and just enough meat or sweets to keep your diet from being perfectly healthy. Earlier, I took what’s likely to be my last trip there*. Seeing the empty shelves and lack of favorite foods was sad. The neighborhood had already cleaned the shelves of dried beans, brown rice, and all fresh and frozen produce. Fortunately, I was able to snag a last package of a few of my cheap gluten-free alternates (cassava bread, $1.19, tortillas, 100/$3.89, hominy $1.79) and came home stocked for a month or two.

What does your neighborhood grocery store mean to you? How would losing your nearby grocery change your life? To me, the loss of Hi Lo Foods means I’ll be traveling farther, and eating fewer interesting dried beans and corn products. Unusual spices won’t be replaced as easily, and my grocery bill will rise somewhat (but not painfully). It’s not a death tole for my diet, but others more dependent on it will feel a greater hit to the pocketbooks (and likely a decrease in healthful foods in their diets) and extra transportation time and energy. We’re also lucky enough to be in an area where there are other options within reasonable distances, unlike some areas of Boston.

To me, it seems a little like an end of an era. The neighborhood is edging a little too far into the gentrified but depressed category. I’ll have to toast to neighborhood grocery stores over my next bag of arepas. Maybe I’ll get around to advocating for grocery stores in the potential Forest Hills development…

* Sidenote: It was an odd Boston experience, in that everyone was then really nice to me on my way home. The bus driver opened the door for me again, a stranger helped me re-bag my groceries after the handles broke, and then a kid gave up his seat for me. Weird. But nice.