The Death of Yale's Supermarket

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Thomas MacMillan/The New Haven Independent


For most Yale students, the most stressful part of shopping for groceries is the burden of choice. But last March, Yalies—and New Haven residents—began feeling the strain of a new grocery dilemma: instead of too many choices, there is now no choice at all. After nearly 12 years in operation, the Shaw's supermarket on Whalley Avenue has closed, leaving the city without a major grocery store.

Grocery stores are, like utilities, one of the few businesses that every city fundamentally needs for its survival. They are at the crux of a curious ethical interplay of supply and demand and community welfare, of profit motives and everyday sustenance. On Monday, I sat in on the Yale Sustainable Food Project-sponsored panel "Feeding New Haven" to try to understand the meaning of this situation. As I listened to four local food leaders and activists discuss how the closing had affected New Haven residents, the problem of food access took shape in my mind in the form of three questions. Where will people get their groceries? Will the food be geographically accessible? And will it be economically affordable?

Underlying Ms. Ziesk's comments was a palpable anxiety about the implications of the food access problem: the reality that only a wealthy few have access to the healthiest, most sustainable food.

Many Yale students, however, provided the comfort and convenience of a full Yale Dining meal plan, are not even aware that issues of food access exist. I am guilty of just such negligence every time I zip into Commons, our main dining hall, to grab a bagel and gorge myself as I stumble off to class three minutes before it begins. The food transaction requires no grocery store run, no exchange of cash (those fees have already been bundled together with room and board and paid for by my parents), and no contemplative hesitation.

Jordan Zimmerman, Yale class of 2012, noted during the discussion how easily privilege and geographic isolation blind us to the problem. "Here at Yale, we live in a bubble. Food is implied. We don't have to think about it," she said. She explained that without a supermarket, she is willing to pay extra at local convenience stores like Gourmet Heaven—eight dollars, say, for a carton of oatmeal—because she can afford it, though she noted that this is not a viable solution for the Yale student body as a whole or the New Haven community. To New Haven residents, the strains of not having a major grocery store are much more palpable. Rachel Ziesk, who works for the New Haven Land Trust and volunteers for a community garden project, lamented the strains of having to commute to the nearest supermarket, Stop & Shop, about two miles from downtown in the neighboring town of Hamden. "I resent having to spend that time and gas to go there," she said. And for the people without cars? "What are they supposed to do? Get on a bus for an hour to get groceries? It disappoints, but doesn't surprise me, that the community isn't considered."

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Thomas MacMillan/The New Haven Independent

Underlying Ms. Ziesk's comments was a palpable anxiety about the implications of the food access problem: the reality that only a wealthy few have access to the healthiest, most sustainable food. The problem, as Mark Winne, one of the panelists and a former member of the Hartford Food Policy Council, pointed out, begins with the higher prices of healthier foods like local fruits and vegetables in comparison to the prices of processed foods, which agricultural subsidies maintain at artificially low levels. Geography is also a factor. Over 30 million Americans live in "food deserts": in other words, areas without healthy food options—landscapes dotted by fast-food restaurants, not farmers' markets.

Presented by

Jake Conway is a senior history major at Yale University, where he edits the blog of the Yale Sustainable Food Project. He was a food critic for the Fearless Critic: New Haven in 2009 and has written food reviews for the Yale Daily News. This summer, he interned at Union Square Hospitality Group's Tabla (RIP).

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