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?
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."
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.
In part, this is the result of economics: Large barriers to entry, such as higher rents and distribution costs, discourage supermarket chains from opening urban outlets. Bruce Becker, another panelist and head architect behind 360 State Street, a 700,000-square-foot, 32-story development downtown, noted that of the 60 major grocers he solicited to operate the ground floor supermarket of the development, all of the major grocery chains turned him down outright, and only a handful agreed to enter contractual discussions. Becker and his team settled on a food co-op, a market model in which members have collective ownership of the store and which has seen great success in the Pacific Northwest and in Burlington, Vermont.
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The Elm City Food Co-op, as it will be called, will sell 70-percent natural, organic, and local foods and 30 percent conventional products. With a planned retail area of about 11,000 square feet (in comparison, a Whole Foods has on average about 45,000 square feet of retail space), the co-op aims to be a kind of middle ground, harnessing the collective buying power of the cooperative model while staying small enough to avoid the problems of scale that drove Shaw's from the city. Concerns linger, of course, as the model is still untested, and the co-op name has all too often been associated with luxury-market niche stores catering to wealthy foodies. Whether it can meet its pricing goals remains to be seen. But if it can in fact pair big-box prices with ethical sourcing, it could be a powerful resource for New Haven's low-income residents.
Maybe Erin Eisenberg, another panelist and director of CitySeed, which manages four local farmers' markets, was right when she argued that there is no one-size-fits-all model for urban grocery stores. Indeed, the Shaw's closing proves that up until now the retail model for supermarkets in the city has not worked. There is an ethical imperative for grocery stores to operate in urban communities: it is a matter not purely of economics and access but ultimately of food justice.
Nearing the end of the panel discussion, Winne posed the question: "Are we ever going to hold the Stop & Shops and the Krogers and the Shaw's of America accountable for abandoning us eaters?" Here's hoping that New Haven can do just that—by proving that we are a viable retail market, and finding a way to feed our city.
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