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A Tale of Two Supermarkets

Elm City Market, sauteed brussels sprouts with sundried tomatoes, white rice with a medley of colorful beans, and Italian-style stuffed chicken: $9.00 (meals bought by the pound). Photo by Meredith Redick.

On your way up Whalley Avenue to the Stop & Shop in New Haven, you pass a Papa John’s, a Burger King, and a rundown Jamaican food cart. Further down, you can stop at  Subway, or McDonald’s. Every block or two, a convenience store appears. Mostly, though, this avenue—and the surrounding residential neighborhood—is all about fast food.

But quick calories aren’t everything when it comes to feeding a community. Fourteen percent of New Haven residents are what sociologists call “food-insecure,” meaning they don’t have a regular or reliable supply of nutritious food. The problem is largely caused by food deserts: areas without easy access to a supermarket, in which lower-income communities lack the cars to shop at faraway supermarkets and the financial resources to shop at small, high-end food stores.

New Haven’s only major supermarket, Shaw’s, closed in 2010. For almost a year, the city’s low-income residents had few food options. They could go up the street to Popeye’s—where food stamps are not accepted—or they could go down the street to Edge of the Woods, a small natural foods store where food stamps can be used to buy pricey organic fruits and vegetables. They could also take a series of buses to the closest supermarket, which, for most New Havenites, is prohibitively troublesome and time-consuming.

Then, within six months of each other, two new shopping centers popped up, a corporate giant and a custom-designed cooperative. The opening of Stop & Shop and Elm City Market in 2011 was trumpeted as the solution to New Haven’s food issues. But the way that they opened, and the way that these markets are now operating, sheds light on the strange, arid landscape that is New Haven’s food deserts.

When I first meet Kate Walton in the upstairs conference room of the Stop & Shop on Whalley, she is wearing a neat green Christmas sweater and clogs. Somehow, even her innocuous pastels and curled blonde hair contributes to her intimidating aura. Almost as soon as I arrive, she thrusts a report on Community Food Security in Connecticut at me with a French-manicured hand. Walton then hands me a folder of meticulous notes from her ten-year tenure at the Connecticut Food Bank. The notes detail inefficiencies in the food bank’s administration and the problems she encountered on an everyday basis. In Walton’s world, New Haven’s various social problems all connect to food. She connects malnutrition to low birth-weights, children doing poorly in school, and gang violence. Walton understands food as central to a community’s success.

Walton is currently the community relations coordinator at Stop & Shop, but my first conversations with her are all about soup kitchens. Though she was a central player in bringing the supermarket to the city, her path took her first through the food assistance system. Her career includes almost two decades heading the Fellowship Place, an organization that provides services for people with mental illness, and a decade at the Connecticut Food Bank, where she distributed five million pounds of government food throughout the state each year—of which New Haven received about two million pounds.

During her tenure, she founded a number of programs aimed at relieving the city’s food deserts. One was a mobile pantry truck that carried as much as ten tons of food in refrigerated compartments, making the rounds in New Haven three times a month to distribute food to the elderly, the disabled, and people without access to a car. Another was the Kids’ Backpack program, aimed at children who got most of their nutrition from school lunches; teachers slipped boxed food into their backpacks in order to keep them fed through the weekends. Walton is still waiting on a grant for a program to help distribute food to seniors.

She sums up her work matter-of-factly: “There is an incredible network of relief programs, but the fact is, most people want to get their food from a supermarket.” For many, shopping for food means both independence and choice.

Popeye’s, three chicken tenders a biscuit, a Coke, and a tub of coleslaw: $6.49. Photo by Meredith Redick.

In 1979, Walton was a young mother living near Elm Street with her two children when the small grocery store that served the entire Dwight neighborhood shut down. When no plans for a new supermarket materialized, she re-located Fellowship Place to the old lot. Over a decade after the supermarket closed, when auto shops were so ubiquitous that Whalley Avenue was called “Automobile Avenue,” Walton also joined a new community organization, the Greater Dwight Development Corporation (GDDC), in its efforts to recruit a large chain supermarket into the area. New Haven’s reputation, however, made it difficult.

“The other towns with Shaw’s were much more desirable,” Walton said. “Desirable,” for supermarkets, is often synonymous with “suburban.” In affluent suburbs, residents spend more money on foods with high profit margins, like fancy cheeses and chocolate truffles. New Haven’s population, though, encompasses a broad range of  socioeconomic backgrounds. Yale students on the dining plan pay $12.46 for a single buffet-style dinner; some of those students live next door to families who stretch less than two hundred dollars a month in food stamps into breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

In 2000, GDDC finally persuaded Shaw’s to open a site on Whalley Avenue. It was the first time in twenty years that the neighborhood had a convenient supermarket. But in 2010, after a decade of serving the Dwight Street community, the corporation that owned Shaw’s made the choice to close all eighteen Shaw’s branches in Connecticut. Sixteen other locations were promptly purchased by other supermarket chains, but New Haven, by far the poorest of those cities according to census data, remained empty. After months working to find a store to fill the space, the GDDC had received scattered offers from discount stores, but none from full-service supermarket chains.

New Haven finally got its Stop & Shop through a combination of serendipity and relentless work, with Walton at the center of it all. In the winter of 2010, the Wexler-Grant School asked Walton to create an after-school nutrition education program for its students. She agreed instantly but quickly ran into a problem. The food supplied by Connecticut Food Bank, where she worked, was healthy but unappealing.

Walton met with Anne Demchak, a board member of the Connecticut Food Bank who was then the manager of a Stop & Shop just outside of New Haven: “I said, ‘I don’t have the fresh fruits and vegetables I need, and she said, ‘Just come over to my store on Amity and take whatever you want.”

One spring morning, Demchak and Walton were walking through the Dwight neighborhood when Demchak noticed the old Shaw’s lot. She stopped in front of the parking lot and asked the question Walton had asked herself, every time she drove to Dixwell or Amity to get her groceries: “Why did Stop & Shop not take this spot?”

Less than two weeks later, when the regional manager of Stop & Shop happened to be doing a sweep of all the stores in the area, Demchak and Walton invited him to lunch. Soon after, the three of them stood in the parking lot of the old Shaw’s, looking out across the warm tarmac. Just a few miles from Yale, this neighborhood was in desperate need of a grocery store. At the time, Whalley was dotted with dollar stores and chicken shacks.

“These guys at the corporate level hadn’t seen the site,” Walton said. “None of them realized the unbelievable location. It’s not like”—she scrounges to find an absurd example to tell me—“putting a Stop & Shop in Bridgeport. They hadn’t realized how close Yale was, how close the hospital was, how many thousands of workers might shop there.” Walton’s Bridgeport example shows how corporate supermarkets find the right location—by assessing the potential for profit, not the need for food.  Once the regional manager approved the new store, negotiations started within the week.

Stop & Shop came with a gas station and landscaping, but that wasn’t enough. It needed to be integrated into the neighborhood. During the summer of 2011, Walton hosted a nutrition program at every library branch in and around New Haven, supplying Stop & Shop clementines, granola bars, and two percent milk. Since Stop & Shop opened, it has been donating to local distribution sites, including soup kitchens, and has given priority in hiring to Shaw’s former employees.

But given the history of the lot where Shaw’s once stood, Stop & Shop’s presence can sometimes feel tenuous, and temporary. What’s stopping the supermarket from selling out when business goes sour?

Across town, a different kind of community grocery store had already been taking root. It started in 2010, when Bruce Becker was busy working on his latest development, a mixed-use thirty-two-story tower at 360 State Street. When Becker got from permission New Haven to build, however, the city added another condition: Becker had to find a grocery store to lease out the ground floor.

In theory, the location by the train station was ideal. But taxes were projected to be unusually high—about $1.4 million for the building—and there wasn’t much room for a parking lot. Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s both turned down Becker’s offer, so he contacted Mark Regni, an organic foods retailer who was working for Whole Foods at the time.

Cooperatives are usually designed by a group of members who invest together to maintain bargaining power against vendors. They tend to be small, intimate, and community-governed. Elm City Market, on the other hand, was built from the top down; before it had members, it was completely designed by outside developers. Together, Beckers and Regni designed a plan for a hybrid co-op—a store that would sell both basic non-organic foods and higher-end natural foods. Regni then signed on as general manager.

Once Becker identified the creation of a co-op as the solution to the lease requirements, he made plans for making the store attractive to downtown New Haven residents right away. In a glossy newsletter published each month, the developers detailed the construction process. By February 2011, they were finalizing a logo for the market. By March, Becker and his team were focusing on how to optimize the architecture to bring “visual rhythm and images of nature into the pageantry of buildings.” In April, they asked future members to hand-write notes about their wishes for the store, which would be placed in the floorboards on the ground floor. By November, the market had finally opened its doors in the 360 State Street building. Yet it still faced a problem most co-ops never encounter: how to find a critical mass of members.

Two years later, near the entrance to Elm City Market, cases of Guinness stand next to a pile of plantains. Beside the checkout counters, Snickers and Hershey bars sit next to a sign for “Organic Decorative Gourds.” On the busy Saturday when I visit, the market is bustling when a supervisor named Derek Faulkner finally wanders into the market, eating salad out of a cardboard to-go box. He has a rhinestone stud in each ear, and wears a blue polo shirt. The tattoo on his arm reads, “Vive et vivas”—live that you may live.

Faulkner, a native of Branford, Connecticut, has been here since the market opened. “I didn’t even really know what a co-op was,” he says, spearing a cherry tomato. “My sister came and bugged everyone in my family, so we all became members.” Faulkner has since moved up from member to supervisor. First he was in charge of ordering most of the groceries, and now he  directs the purchase of beer and bulk products—things like oats, nuts, and dried fruits, which customers can buy in any quantity out of tubs that line the west wall of the market.

“Almonds are one of my top products since we opened,” Faulkner says, pointing towards the tubs. “That and oats and rice—white and brown rice.” The market also sells quite a few non-staple items in bulk, including dried mango strips, date rolls, and organic gummy bears.

“It’s easy for us to get a request and fulfill it,” Faulkner says. “Whenever I’m in the beer aisle and I chat with a customer and they want to switch out a brewery, it’s easy for me to do that without having to get approval.” He contrasts this policy with the larger chains like Stop & Shop, noting that he has the freedom to rotate products and to see which ones sell: “There’s no middleman. Just the man.”

Assistant marketing manager Stephanie Berberich designs cooking classes and other educational events to get people interested in the market and thinking about how they eat. “Even if we were to hand out vegetables, they might not necessarily know what to do with them,” Berberich says.

Meanwhile, the market tries to reach lower-income shoppers. “We want everyone to feel welcome to shop here,” Faulkner told me. Elm City Market offers “fresh cards,” which entitles a SNAP-eligible card-holder to ten dollars of fresh produce. The market has also started a “basics” program, setting competitive prices on staple household items that are still organic and local. The top of the list looks like this: Puffins Cereal, 3.49. Baby carrots (16 oz), 2.79. Tropicana Orange Juice, 4.49. For reference, a 16-oz bag of baby carrots at Stop & Shop is 1.69. For Elm City Market’s non-“basics” offerings, the price difference is even bigger; a loaf of whole-wheat bread might run you five dollars, compared to Stop & Shop’s 1.99. Despite Elm City Market’s efforts, it’s hard to imagine how someone living on SNAP would choose to frequent a store where the “competitively priced” items fit on a single sheet of paper.

Not surprisingly, the community market is struggling to integrate into the New Haven landscape. Elm City Market is still in business; organic, local food clearly appeals to enough customers. But to a large subset of Elm City’s proclaimed target population, the pineapples and arugula facing the entrance of Elm City Market are simply inaccessible. It may be a community market, but the community it serves is not the one that needs it most.

Stop & Shop, pre-made dinner of hot chicken wings, rice, and collard greens: $3.47. Photo by Meredith Redick.

I first met Tanya, who declined to give her last name, at the Community Soup Kitchen on a rainy November afternoon. Tanya has lived in New Haven for over a decade. She can list, with encyclopedic precision, the opening hours of every food pantry and soup kitchen within a half-mile radius of downtown New Haven. She eats her pulled-pork sandwich quickly. “I don’t eat at places like this all the time,” she says. “Just if I’m in the neighborhood.”

At the Community Soup Kitchen, a few late visitors sit at the red-checked tables, hunched over their food. One is a young woman wearing tight sweatpants and a hoodie; another is a gaunt man wearing shorts and battered suede chaps. As these visitors disperse, they toss styrofoam plates flecked with coleslaw and pork into a trashcan.

New Haven has more soup kitchens and food pantries than most surrounding cities. The Community Soup Kitchen is situated roughly halfway between the two supermarkets and across the street from Gourmet Heaven on Broadway, a small market where the imported candies displayed next to the entrance might cost you over five bucks.

Rick Durance, one of the assistant managers, surveys the room. “We try to make the meals nutritious,” he says, opening a styrofoam container to show me a typical serving. “Usually the salad is a little bit bigger.”

“We actually see a fair number of people coming from out of town to use these resources,” the manager, Dave O’Sullivan, tells me later. “New Haven is an attractive place to food-insecure people. People will come from as far as Wallingford,” a city twenty minutes away.

Tanya, who is almost a year sober from crack cocaine and alcohol addiction, found solace in Community Soup Kitchen when she was first recovering. “If you give respect here, you get it,” she says, licking her fingers. She gestures at her outfit: striped green sweater, matching corduroy pants, shiny green eye shadow. “A year ago, I was not like this.”

Tanya buys most of her food from grocery stores, usually with the help of food stamps. She used to receive $189 every month in benefits, an amount that gets loaded onto an electronic benefits transfer (EBT) card and can be used like a debit card. After government cutbacks in October 2013, she receives a little bit less. She can’t spend that money on pre-made food from, say, the burrito joint just down the street. It has to be groceries. Tanya fiercely guards her EBT card—not even relatives are allowed to borrow it.

Tanya is also strategic about where she shops, though the Whalley Avenue Stop & Shop should be the most convenient choice. “The Walmart in Wallingford is really nice,” she says. “It goes all the way down the block.” But Wallingford is accessible from New Haven only for those with a bus ticket (or a car) and a block of uninterrupted time. Her second choice is Shop-Rite, a store about four miles from the home of the family friend she’s been staying with in Hamden since she started recovering from her addiction.

If Tanya eats at a soup kitchen a few times a week and rides to Wallingford to buy cheap groceries, she can make her money stretch to the end of the month. Some months, she can afford to stock up on her favorite vegetables: string beans, collard greens, and corn. Near the end of the month, as her EBT card balance dwindles, she often starts substituting cheaper foods like potato chips for vegetables. Sometimes she buys potato chips anyway so she can send the extra food to her son, who currently lives with her mother.

Tanya tells me that she shops at Stop & Shop only as a last resort—even though it’s more convenient than other stores. “The prices are too high,” she said me. “I went there a few times when it first opened, but I can’t go anymore.” She and several others at Community Soup Kitchen who are local to New Haven even think that Stop & Shop has fewer promotional sales around the first of the month, when EBT cards get renewed. Whether it’s rumor or truth, Tanya feels little loyalty to the new supermarket.

On the first of the month, yellow taxis flood the parking lot of the Whalley Avenue Stop & Shop with people ready to pack the trunk with a month’s worth of groceries. Even as new stores open doors, some of the city’s residents must go to great lengths to get their groceries. The statistics show that, between 2010 and 2011, food insecurity in New Haven went up, not down.

New Haven’s food deserts are an unusual ecosystem: the city’s emergency food supplies are robust enough to attract people from out of town, but its two grocery stores struggle to take root. What’s more, they seem to have emerged as a result of a combination of serendipity and determination from a few dedicated individuals, not of concerted city-wide efforts. These stores—one a nationally-known giant, the other a peculiar brand of co-op—are an oasis for some and an illusion for others.

Walton remains undiscouraged. In fact, our conversation has reminded her that she needs to resubmit a grant for a new food access program. “We have to figure out how to use the existing infrastructure to get food to everyone,” Walton says, handing me another sheaf of notes. “Access to food is kind of the center of the universe for everybody.” As I descend the stairs back into the fluorescent lights of the Stop & Shop, holding a detailed diagram of her mobile groceries plan for seniors, I am reminded that the other challenges for feeding New Haven—integrating new shops into the community, reaching out to those who are house-bound or don’t have cars—cannot be relieved by planting a supermarket in the middle of the city. The food deserts are created by more than simple geography.

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