A grocery store merger made this Bellingham neighborhood a food desert. Are others next?
Grocery shopping is something we all do, and it's highly personal. People have strong feelings about where and how they get their food. The proposed $25 billion merger of two of the nation's largest supermarket chains has the potential to affect how millions of customers buy their groceries.
"State of the Cart" is a four-part series that examines the proposed merger from different perspectives — its impact on consumers, on workers, on the communities themselves, and on our shopping habits.
roger and Albertsons' proposed merger has been under intense public scrutiny. And for good reason. In 2015, Albertsons acquired Safeway. To comply with antitrust laws, the companies shed nearly 200 stores. One of those stores was in Birchwood, a neighborhood in Bellingham, a city of 92,000 people, 90 miles north of Seattle. The closure created a food desert in one of Bellingham's most racially and socio-economically diverse neighborhoods that continues to this day.
Every Saturday morning community volunteers set up tables at a credit union parking lot across from Northwest Avenue. There are tables of donated and rescued foods — fresh produce, breads, and even boxes of pizza.
“We’re out here, rain or shine,” said Tina McKim, one of the organizers at Birchwood Food Desert Fighters, a local group of volunteers that collect and organize donations for the weekly food share.
An Albertsons store once anchored the neighborhood. It was the perfect location for people like Julia de la Cruz.
“At the time, we didn’t have a car,” recalled de la Cruz. “So it was really good. And I was in a wheelchair, so my husband used to wheelchair me down here.”
But after 38 years, Albertsons closed in 2016, the result of its merger with Safeway. Back then, residents didn’t think much of the closure.
“Everyone thought, 'Oh, another grocery store is gonna go in,'” McKim said.
But that didn’t happen. The community also learned there wouldn’t be another grocery store going in — at least not for a while.
“Albertsons had placed a series of non-compete clauses on the building itself,” McKim said.
The non-compete clause itself wasn’t the issue. It was the duration of the clause — 22 years.
“It feels malicious,” McKim said.
A large portion of Birchwood residents are seniors, students, and immigrants. Many work in the service industry. The closest store is less than two miles away, which may not seem like a barrier. But for folks with mobility issues, it requires planning and ends up taking significant time.
“As a disabled person myself, I know how hard it is to get food and how much of an extra challenge it can be depending on how your body is acting in that particular time,” McKim said, adding that she’s fortunate her husband works at Trader Joe’s and does the shopping.
Other people grapple with the distance in various ways. Mia Casebeer and her fiancé Dustyn Morris have a car but limit their shopping trips to twice a month.
“Gas is so expensive,” Casebeer said. Besides, she takes the car to work. Morris said if he were to shop when Casebeer is at work, the closest store is a 45-minute walk.
“If I were to try to go grocery shopping by myself, I couldn’t bring all of the groceries that I would need from the store,” he explained.
A cautionary tale
The loss of the Birchwood Albertsons in 2016 created a food desert. This is the kind of scenario regulators are trying to avoid repeating with the proposed $25 billion merger between Albertsons and Kroger. Of course, not all store closures lead to food deserts, but when it does happen, it can be devastating for the community.
In Birchwood’s case, volunteers started a weekly food share to fill the void. But the food share can’t last forever. So, residents turned to city hall for a long-term solution.
“They didn’t want us to force Albertsons to come back,” said Michael Lilliquist, president of the Bellingham City Council. "But they wanted us to break the restrictions so that at least somebody else can come back.”
The city looked into the matter to determine whether it could intervene.
“What we quickly learned is that it’s a private contract," Lilliquist said. "And the city really had no legal authority to go in there and break that contract, at least after the fact.”
But Lilliquist and other city leaders didn't give up. They believed the city could intervene because the restrictions of the contract affected a basic public necessity — food. In that sense, the city could use public health and welfare to protect access to local food.
In 2019, the city passed an ordinance. It still allowed restrictive covenants that preclude the use of the property for grocery stores, but the ordinance says those covenants can’t last for decades. Lilliquist said the duration has to be much shorter.
“We could do that to give the business a chance to establish whatever new location if they’re moving,” he said. “But then that protection from competition, it expires. And someone else is allowed to come in and serve the community.”
Unfortunately for Birchwood residents, the ordinance isn’t retroactive, so it doesn’t apply to the location of the former Albertsons store. That property was sold in 2021. But the restrictive covenant is still attached to the land, until it expires 15 years from now, in 2038.