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Much of Cahokia Heights is marked as a food desert — now Walmart is leaving

Pictured on a sunny afternoon, a store closing sign is draped on the exterior of Cahokia Heights' Walmart.
Will Bauer
St. Louis Public Radio
A majority of the city surrounding Walmart’s location and East St. Louis to the north is designated as both low income and low access, according to the USDA.

Walmart’s closure in Cahokia Heights on Friday may put more stress on an area already stretched thin for food access, according to experts.

“Anytime that a business or grocery leaves an area it's always concerning,” said Meredith Knopp, president and CEO of the St. Louis Area Foodbank. “It’s definitely going to be challenging to the folks that live and call Cahokia Heights home.”


While there are both Schnucks and Aldi on the same road, a large portion of the city surrounding Walmart’s location and East St. Louis to the north is designated as both low income and low access, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Access Research Atlas. In urban areas like this, that means a grocery store or supermarket is more than one mile away. The USDA declined to comment on the Cahokia Heights situation.

Citing the store’s performance, Walmart announced last month that Friday will be its last day in Cahokia Heights. The company also announced closures of four locations in Chicago.

Job losses, other concerns

For Ellen Barnidge, the interim dean of St. Louis University’s College of Public Health and Social Justice, the loss of jobs that a large employer like Walmart has in a community may be the most concerning part of the closure.

“Food security is a social and economic measure,” said Barnidge, who studies and teaches the subject. “It isn’t necessarily a nutrition measure. It’s a question of if people can afford enough food for an active, healthy life. If jobs leave the community, it puts people who might already be vulnerable in more vulnerable positions.”

While a Walmart spokesman did not have an exact number of how many employees are transferring to other stores, he said all 122 workers at Cahokia Heights have the option.

“We employ hundreds of associates in the Metro East with five Walmart Supercenters and Neighborhood Markets within 16 miles (or less) of Cahokia,” spokesman Charles Crowson said. “We have invested in our associates and want to keep them in the Walmart family.”

The community of around 18,000 has a median income of less than $30,000, according to 2021 estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau. The City of Cahokia Heights formed in 2021 when the villages of Cahokia, Centreville and Alorton merged.

Barnidge said there are a few other aspects to consider; how some people get to and from wherever they get their food is an important step. A potential change could be disruptive, she said.

And having options at places like Walmart, which tends to provide cheaper alternatives, can also impact the community.

“Sometimes there's those other things that we might not think about when a place like Walmart leaves,” Barnidge said. “Certainly, they often have groceries, but they have a lot of other things that might make it easier for families to take care of their household needs.”

Darrell Burries, a resident of Cahokia Heights, said he mainly does his grocery shopping at Schnucks across the street. But Walmart’s location, which is within walking distance of his home, made it a convenient place to buy diapers, wipes and other items for his babies.

It also provided him a second option for groceries if Walmart was cheaper or Schnucks didn’t have a specific item, he said.

“This is the only Walmart that’s close, so I have to travel hella far to go to get what I want,” Burries said.

Fellow Cahokia Heights resident Kyron Hawthorne said he was shocked by the announcement of the store closing that’s been in his hometown his whole life.

“My family comes here. My mom and my grandma, they’ve always come here,” Hawthorne said.

The 24-year-old knows the grocery scene well because he works at Schnucks. Like Burries, he also shops around depending on price and options.

Knopp said Walmart’s closure comes at a unique time.

“The face of hunger is changing,” she said, citing the continued rising cost of goods.

The St. Louis foodbank leader said she now sees more people working two part-time jobs or full time that are struggling to make ends meet.

“It really is cutting across demographics and ZIP codes,” Knopp said. “This is a real opportunity for people and leaders in the community to come together and figure out how we can best support everyone in each one of our communities.”

For anyone struggling in the area, the foodbank, which coordinates donations for 14 counties in eastern Missouri and 12 in southwest Illinois, has options.

Knopp said the Cahokia Community Basket, located between the Walmart and Aldi, and three drive-thru options in the area are good places to start.

Will Bauer is the Metro East reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.