Sunday, February 8, 2015

Ayer and Shirley: America's Newest Food Desert

The following is the text of a commentary airing mostly on Liberty & Justice 1640:

Hannaford Supermarket in Ayer is now gone. Hannaford management wanted to bring the store up to 21st century standards. The local land owner said "no."

The Ayer Farmers Market is no longer operating on Saturdays during the Summer and Fall. Why? The local land owner said "no." He also said "no" to rail commuters who need access through "his" land to reach the few job pools in the region still able to sustain middle class life. He also said "no" to the parking needs of nearby small businesses. After all, he is *The Land Owner.* If he unrealistically expects his slice of downtown to remain as pristine as an acre of remote northern Maine woods, that's his prerogative under capitalism, isn't it?

And finally, lest we forget, we do (or did) have a local farm stand in Ayer. But it's only open from July to Labor Day and only during years when the owner feels like opening it.

Welcome to Ayer and Shirley, where narcissism and eccentricity have produced America's newest food desert.
To anyone even casually familiar with the recent departure of Hannaford Supermarket from Ayer, as well as the small seasonal venues for fresh vegetables that either no longer exist or are no longer reliable, it should be obvious which groups are almost entirely responsible for their demise: selfish land owners, greedy real estate developers, and dysfunctional town zoning boards.

Food that is nourishing enough to sustain health is essential to human life. Maintaining local retail sources of food should be of such importance that it warrants intervention by town governments, even to the point of exercising eminent domain, when private land owners repeatedly demonstrate self-centered, pathological behavior with no sense whatsoever of the greater public good. Yet, this behavior should be no surprise. Just look what the local real estate developers and land owners have given Ayer and Shirley over the past 15 years. They have destroyed nearly all of our remaining viable agricultural land and filled it with cookie-cutter, energy wasting McMansions that fewer and fewer people can afford. What, you want new organic small farms? That's for those hippies out in western Mass. and New York state. What, you want zero net energy homes? That's for those hippies on Devens... or something like that. And for all you working poor people who make up the bulk of the population of these two towns, don't you just love those rents which have more than doubled over the past 15 years? Don't you love how easy it has become to pay your bills and stay out of debt, thanks to the local land owners?

"Hey, get me to the money with as little effort or thought as possible! And those poor people, they deserve what they get."

Of course, it's easy to think that way if you have the time and money to climb into a $50,000 vehicle and go food shopping in Leominster, Lunenburg, or Acton, or better yet, have a servant or employee do it for you. But most low income working people in Ayer and Shirley do not have such options. Many do not own even an old, beat up vehicle. The local landlords and business interests have made sure that most are within a 10 minute walk from all the alcoholic beverages they could ever want to drown their sorrows. But a nice bunch of health sustaining, organic kale? You have to hitch a ride out of town for that one, boy!

If you think town governments will finally rise to the call and seize these vital, limited properties until truly appropriate buyers emerge who will end the food desert, don't hold your breath. In the early years of this century, a plan to expand Roux's Market to two stories and vastly increase their grocery offerings was shot down by the Shirley zoning board. But a year or two later, that same board had no problem allowing a chain franchise like Dunkin Donuts to come in by knocking down a classic, residential building in otherwise good condition.

As long as idiocy, eccentricity, narcissism, and greed continue to persist in the local real estate industry and in town governments, the Ayer-Shirley Food Desert may persist for many years to come. So, brace yourself. But for every month it continues, the more and more likely the two towns will become the laughing stock of the state, especially considering that most surrounding communities avoided such problems by exercising sanity, vision, and common sense.