Don't Forget Housing for Front Line Workers

“People saw us differently during the pandemic. It was not just doctors and nurses. We were front line workers. People have to eat.”

John Jones has been a mainstay at the North Main Street Food Lion for nine years. He started his employment there as a student at Virginia Tech in 2013. John arrived in Blacksburg from a small town in Nelson County, Virginia. “My hometown has one traffic light and only 135 people in my graduating high school class.” Even though coming to a larger town was a transition, Blacksburg reminded John of his hometown. “It is a good area, rural community with farmers, and great people.”

John graduated from Tech in 2016 with a major in history and rose through the ranks at Food Lion. He currently works as the Customer Service manager, does all the front office work, hiring, and cash management. “Grocery stores are the community connector. You see everyone in your community, get to know customers on a first name basis, and it is a good place to network with one another.”

The last two years have been difficult. The strain on the supply chain and labor shortage creates stress on the grocery industry. And, since “90% of Food Lion’s labor force is college students”, availability of employees can be difficult to maintain. Having employees near the store’s location is important.

John has lived near Food Lion in Maple Ridge Townhomes as a college student, moved to Pheasant Run behind Food Lion for two years, Clover Lane for two years, and now lives in an apartment near South Main Street, close to the CookOut. Finding one bedroom apartments in Blacksburg is challenging, and rents for apartments are expensive.

Living here is important, however. John has a great community of friends and is very active in the Blacksburg Tennis Club Association. His love of tennis was nurtured in Blacksburg and it is the place he inhabits a lot outside of work. But, more importantly, Blacksburg is where John works, and many extra hours were spent at work during the pandemic to cover the employment shortage. If most of the employees were not college students, it is difficult to know whether local employees could afford to live here and work here.

Our grocery stores offer a valuable service. “People need groceries.” But, grocery stores are also the places where we see our neighbors, friends, and the employees that show up to work when other places are closed for business.

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