Annie Jones worried how she would ever get to the grocery store almost two miles away on her motorized medical scooter in time to buy supplies as Hurricane Matthew approached.
She’s elderly, can’t drive and her home in Overtown was in a so-called food desert — a low-income area defined by the USDA where a grocery store or supermarket is more than a mile away on foot.
Fortunately, Jones — and Overtown — got some help just in time.
A Top Value Supermarket opened at 1490 NW Third Ave. on Wednesday, the morning weather alerts put Miami in Hurricane Matthew’s path. It is the first supermarket to open in Overtown in many years, what the community redevelopment agency called a “milestone.”
“We are blessed with this,” Jones said, groceries packed on her lap and in the handlebar basket of her maroon electric scooter: bottles of water, cut fresh melon, chicken thighs.
The timing of the store’s opening couldn’t have been better. Not only do about 250,000 Miami-Dade residents (about 10 percent) live in a food desert, but hurricane supplies were dwindling at many supermarkets, which were still miles away from residents of this historic community.
Wednesday afternoon, the store was busy with cars filling the parking lot and locals pushing carts from their homes to stock up on groceries and hurricane supplies.
Bright lights illuminated the perfectly stacked produce aisle, from sweet potatoes laid like bricks to an expanse of fresh vegetables that looked like something out of a movie set. It smelled like Lysol and fresh-roasted chicken.
Shantel Vilbrun shopped the aisles to stock the pantry for her elderly in-laws who live in Overtown. Her husband’s grandfather, Billy Vilbrun, 89, kept her and her three children company as she loaded up on bottles of water and other essentials.
“For people who live in the community, this is great,” she said. “They’re developing the neighborhood, and that’s a good thing.”
That was the goal of the Southeast Overtown/Park West Community Redevelopment Agency, which spent $2.2 million to renovate Overtown Plaza. The agency leased the space to Top Value and gave the supermarket $600,000 in grants and loans to help build the 17,000-square-foot store.
It instantly became a meeting place. Grace Doctor was paying for two bags of plums when her neighbor Tabitha Stillman hugged her at the end of the checkout line of lane five. They both walked to the store from a few blocks away.
“We needed this,” Stillman said.
“To put a store back in here was wonderful,” Doctor added.
A former grocery store, the building had been a blight for years. The former owner abandoned it and left aisles full of rotting groceries and boxes that drew rats, said neighbor Loren Daniel, who helped clear out the space.
“The place had rats coming out of the roof,” Daniel said.
Impossible to imagine it that way now, from the polished concrete floors to white-painted high ceilings and sparking aisles between. All five checkout lines were four and five shoppers deep. They hoped it would stay this way.
“If they keep it up like this, it’ll be great for everybody,” said Gloria Garcia, shopping with three of her sons, Ezekiel, 11, Mathieu, 9, and Javier, 3.
More than a dozen employees are from the neighborhood, said Emanuel Washington, who runs a staffing service that trains locals and helps employ them.
“We’ve been waiting for the renewal of this city for 40 years, since they put in I-95 and displaced so many families,” he said.
Frank Monterrey and Roger Gonzalez, who live a block away, were there for the second time that day, their cart brimming with everything from fresh greens to eggs and bacon and Goya seasonings.
For Gonzalez, who doesn’t own a car, a trip to the grocery store used to mean a bus ride, a plan of attack and plenty of headaches in South Florida’s unpredictable weather. Now, even anticipating a hurricane, it means convenience.
“We’ve been waiting a long time for this place to open,” he said. “For the people who live here, it’s going to be wonderful.”