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New Haven-Shaw’s=Food Desert. What’s being done about it?

March 6, 2010

On Tuesday, March 2, Farm Manager Grace Oedel (PC’ 10) and several other Yalies attended one of the first community meetings that was called together to deal with the food crisis in New Haven. Grace was kind enough to report back to keep us all updated on the situation and to tell us what she learned about the community’s perspective.

Ten years ago, New Haven community activists fought to bring Shaw’s Supermarket to New Haven. Shaw’s recently announced that the chain has decided to close all its stores in Connecticut and will vacate their Whalley location by the end of March. This news has serious ramifications for the entire city of New Haven. Upon hearing the news, concerned community members immediately began discussing the next steps. On March 2, the entire New Haven community was invited to attend a meeting about the closing at the 130 Edgewood neighborhood police station. I walked over with a group of other Yalies to hear what New Havenites were thinking and doing about this, and how we might help. Representation at the meeting was incredibly diverse: several Yale students, aldermen, and representatives from the NAACP, CT Food Bank, CitySeed, Fellowship Place, the Greater New Haven Central Labor Council, Whalley Ave Special Services District, New Haven food policy council, and the Yale Urban Design Workshop were all in attendance. Several Shaw’s employees were there as well. Despite the severity of the situation, I was inspired that so many people rallied together to work towards a solution.

I was particularly struck by the economic impact of the supermarket shut-down. An elderly female employee stood up and spoke about how much she enjoyed her work and relied on Shaw’s for security. She was afraid that she would still be unemployed even if the Dwight community development group was able to get another store to move into the space. After hearing her story, what really upset me was the fact that Shaw’s is one of the biggest employers in our neighborhood, if not the biggest, and when they leave at the end of the month, hundreds of people will simply be out of work.

But the seriousness of Shaw’s departure extends beyond the problem of unemployment. When Shaw’s closes, New Haven will again be a food desert. When a woman from the Connecticut Food Bank took the floor and started discussing the crisis that New Haven will be in at the end of the month, I began to think about how privileged I am and how naive I had been about food justice issues up to this point. We weren’t talking about people having access to local food, or organic food, or fresh food, or even healthy food– we were simply talking about having access to any food. Since I live on Edgewood just down the street from Shaw’s, I began to think about what my options would be if I didn’t have a car or the ability to buy six dollar grapes at Gheav if I felt the need. Without Shaw’s, the only places I could afford to buy food on a regular basis would be two gas stations or a Walgreen’s, which I suppose means that I could choose to go hungry or eat a lot of non-perishable, processed “foods” out of shiny packets.

So what are the options for New Haven residents at this point? Read them after the jump.

Here are the basics: Shaw’s still has a lease on the space that lasts until 2019, so they can either keep the space empty, find another supermarket operator to move in soon, use the space for several smaller businesses, or buy out the lease from the Greater Dwight Development Corporation. Linda Townsend-Bayer is currently heading up the GDCC, and although Shaw’s still has leasing rights, she is leading the quest to find another store. A charismatic, smart, and passionate community leader, Linda proclaimed during the meeting that, “Come hell or high water, we will have a grocery store!” And everyone cheered.

If only it were that simple. Community members also discussed the problems of simply calling in another big box store. One man eloquently pointed out how no matter which massive corporation New Haven contracts with, the impersonality of that relationship would make the city just another number on its list of stores; they would have no real sense of allegiance to the Yale community. Another woman suggested the idea of a co-op, which might make a lot of sense for a city like New Haven in which there are many socioeconomic brackets and different potential markets to tap into. Having a grocery with vested community ownership could help address some of the deeper problems related to the sense that large box stores seem to primarily think of communities in terms of their potential revenues. Despite all of these important considerations and ideas, I was still just consumed by this sense of urgency about this food emergency. We simply do not have time to develop an ideal model. People have children who need food to eat and so many people will be losing their jobs in a matter of weeks. We need food for our families, now.

Of course we must also address the issues that put our community in such a drastic situation in the first place and attempt to think of long-term solutions that will prevent it from happening again. Shaw’s exit instantiates how broken our food system is. We are so divorced from how our food is sourced that if trucks don’t bring it in from another state, we simply don’t have it. At no point in the meeting did anyone raise the question of where or how we produce our food. But having listened to the priorities of community members, I understand that the seriousness of the situation warrants immediate rescue and building sustainable, local food relationships takes more time than we have right now. On the other hand, in a community where people are worried about being hungry in a few weeks, we should ask ourselves how we can be better involved in sustainable long-term production as well.

And though palpable fear hung in the room during the meeting, there was also an intense energy and sense of community that was really inspirational. People were talking to each other, offering legal counsel for the workers who will lose their jobs and throwing out suggestions of what to do next. Community leaders are currently developing workable plans of action and a lot of people signed up to volunteer their time with working groups. I thought the meeting was really constructive and left not only with a better understanding of the dire food situation in my community, but also with a sense of confidence that the New Haven community’s solidarity and activism can only mean a resolution in the near future.

There is a community meeting next Tuesday at 6:30 at 130 Edgewood, and I strongly encourage anyone who is around to go and work through these questions with our neighbors.


2 Comments leave one →
  1. March 10, 2010 11:58 pm

    Please send to your friends. It’s especially important to get responses from individuals not considered to be living in the neighborhood, like undergraduates and graduate students.

    Supermarkets are an essential ingredient in a more walkable city. Please forward the following message to your neighbors, friends and colleagues, and take the online survey, even if they do not shop at Shaw’s Supermarket or live in New Haven. You will be helping the Dwight Supermarket Concerned Citizens Committee find a solution to the store vacancy issue on Whalley Avenue. Survey responses should be received prior to March 19th.



    Help Bring a Full-Service Grocery Store Back to New Haven!

    Help New Haven prevent a Food Desert! Fill out this survey to help the Dwight Supermarket Concerned Citizens Committee gather the necessary information to bring back a full-service grocery store to Whalley Avenue:

    Additionally, please vote for the issue on SeeClickFix:

  2. Sam Ribnick permalink
    October 13, 2010 6:49 pm

    I am a student at the University of Pennsylvania and the issue of food deserts across the communities of West Philadlephia is a huge issue. Being someone especially interested in education and youth development, I think perhaps the biggest issue (aside from no food) is the way a lack of healthy food choices affects youth. If students grow up in an environment without any food choices then it is extremely difficult to make the right choices even when they are part of a community with normal grocery stores later on in life. This I think was particularly interesting because many of the students here at Penn like I’m sure at Yale have never had to deal with anything like this before. Food at school and in their home community provides the necessary variety to make choices like that.

    One of the greatest elements of the Yale Sustainable Food Project that it seems from your blog posts is that you focus on exposure for the Yale community, in expanding students’ perspectives on the issues associated with food options. I was interested to know whether you connected this goal to the communities around New Haven, especially for students. In Philadelphia we have an organization called the Urban Nutrition Initiative which creates small farms/produce gardens where students are able to particiapte with college age students in learning about growing food year round. One of the greatest things about your project is that I think to a large degree it is a model that can be replicated in other urban colleges around the country, and it is something I think would be truly beneficial to Penn. To conclude I guess. Thank you guys for your work and hopefully you can be checking up on what we are doing down in Philadelphia in a couple years.

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