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Food co-op to save New Haven’s crisis?

The Elm City Food Co-op will sit on the corner of Chapel and State Streets (Courtesy Becker & Becker)

The Elm City Food Co-op will sit on the corner of Chapel and State Streets (Courtesy Becker & Becker)

The Elm City Food Co-op will sit on the corner of Chapel and State Streets (Courtesy Becker & Becker)

 

Emily Rappaport looks at the next hope for food shopping in downtown New Haven

While Yale students have benefited from increased access to high-quality foods in the school’s dining halls over the past decade, many New Haven citizens have struggled to find fresh, healthy products in a way that fits their schedules and budgets. This problem became especially pronounced in February of this year, when the Whalley Avenue Shaw’s, one of the city’s only full-service supermarkets, shut down, leaving no similar food source in downtown New Haven.

Community efforts to find an all purpose grocery store to move into the former Shaw’s space are still inconclusive. But early spring, the Elm City Food Co-op will move into 11,500 square feet of retail space at the base of the new development at 360 State Street. The co-op will be a “hybrid” grocery store, selling a mix of natural and conventional products; it will be run by member owners, employees, advisors, and a board of directors. According to its website, the co-op aims to “bring fresh, healthy food to the city’s bustling downtown,” and “promote sustainability and healthy lifestyles.”

“The closing of Shaw’s left a gaping hole in terms of the availability of fresh food,” said assistant professor of architecture Elihu Rubin, which created a problem referred to by urban planners as a “food desert.” Comparable alternatives to Shaw’s, like Stop & Shop, Price Rite, and Walmart, are located well outside the city center and can only be reached by bus or car. Without ready access to supermarkets like Shaw’s that sell fresh, healthy food, “Residents do most of their shopping at convenience stores and bodegas and pharmacies like Rite Aid or Walgreen’s,” Rubin said. “These are very useful and very important pieces of a neighborhood, but do not provide the sort of access to healthy food that people should have.”

Josh Evans, CC ‘12, an events intern at the Yale Farm, explained that in a food desert many people end up eating “junk food that’s been processed from corn and soy” as an alternative to fresh produce. It’s here that food issues become hugely connected to health care issues, obesity, education, crime, and other social issues that, though some politicians may want to compartmentalise, are clearly inextricably interconnected.”

Robbie Hobson, who works in the Trumbull dining room and lives near the site of the old Shaw’s, confirmed the impact of the loss. “I miss it, I miss it, I miss it,” she said of Shaw’s. “It was so convenient for me because it was in my neighborhood.” In the absence of Shaw’s, Hobson, like many of her neighbors, drives to Stop & Shop. But without a supermarket nearby, she says, “I find myself doing without things I used to just pick up. Say I wanted grapes.; say I wanted just one item, I could run up to Shaw’s and get it.” Driving the nearly three miles to Stop & Shop, however, can hardly be part of a daily routine.

Indeed, there are alarmingly few full-service alternatives to Shaw’s that don’t impose a hassle with respect to time, money, or both. On yelp.com, the groceries in New Haven listed as having the five best selections include Edge of the Woods, a natural market that doesn’t sell meat; Hong Kong Market, a Chinese specialty market; and Gourmet Heaven, which is expensive and has a very limited selection. The other two markets are also small, relatively gourmet groceries.

It makes sense, then, that the city government of New Haven would require the 360 State project to pay a penalty if it did not include a grocery store. “Our understanding,” said John Renner, a Vice President at Becker and Becker, the project’s developer, “is that the lack of full-service food markets downtown is a major complaint of residents and therefore an obstacle to population and economic growth. We believe the food co-op will meet and greatly exceed the city’s expectations.”

Many people in the Yale and greater New Haven communities, however, are skeptical that the co-op will be a viable alternative to a mainstream supermarket. The co-op is, after all, committed to selling organic, fresh foods, which in most people’s minds go hand in hand with higher prices.

When asked whether she thought people in her neighborhood would patronize the co-op, Hobson hesitated. “Prices are so high at this point, everybody’s watching their dollars. And if it’s going to be more expensive, it’s not going to work.”

Don Greene, who works in the Calhoun dining hall and lives in New Haven, anticipated high prices at the co-op and consequently posited that people in his community would go elsewhere. “People are so strapped now, and they’re always trying to find the cheapest produce.”

Greene doesn’t do much grocery shopping (though when he does, he drives to Stop & Shop), because he eats most meals in Calhoun. This is fortunate, Greene says: “The stuff I see in here—like fresh pineapple—is expensive. Do you know how much a pineapple is? Four dollars. I’m not spending four dollars on a pineapple. I think the same way others in the neighborhood do, I would imagine.” He added, “If you have fresh produce that’s organic, it’s going to be more. Look at a regular grocery store: You can buy a lot of organic food there. But you say, okay, organic oranges? These are $8.99. Regular oranges are $5.99.”

One Jonathan Edwards dining room staffer who lives with her parents close to campus said she hadn’t shopped at Shaw’s because it was too expensive—instead, she drives to Shop Rite once every two weeks. She felt that many citizens of New Haven don’t eat a lot of produce due to a lack of both access and time; as a result, they turn to fast food. The co-op, of course, would ideally provide access and convenience, but if the store is more expensive, she doesn’t think many people she knows will shop there. “People don’t care about the product. They care about the price.”

Rubin said that ideally the co-op “will offer fresh, affordable food for anyone,” but, “It’s definitely part of a different trend in urban food than what Shaw’s represented. There is something very middle class about the taste and desire for organic, local foods which are inevitably more expensive.” He concluded, “The danger is that the co-op becomes a sort of boutique-y farmers’ market, and not an affordable, useful market.”

Jonah Quinn, SM ’12, said, “I think the co-op will most likely not be a sufficient stand in for the old supermarket, and maybe the difference between the two is difficult to talk about. What does a food co-op mean to the average consumer, and who actually feels comfortable shopping there? One could almost imagine co-ops on stuffwhitepeoplelike.com”—a blog that catalogues the distinct tastes of hip yuppies—“Oh wait—they’re number 48.” He added, “There have to be legitimate alternatives to fast food, and it can’t be cost prohibitive. Local and organic are both important, but if you care that much about those things, you’re probably shopping at the farmers’ markets anyway.”

The developers of the co-op insist that prices will be competitive, and that the store is not just meant to service the more affluent members of the community. “We understand that we will never be able to serve the full breadth of needs in each neighborhood, or be as convenient or responsive as smaller specialty and convenience markets,” Renner said. “But the food co-op is definitely intended to service the greater New Haven community. The business model for a food co-op like the Elm City Market is to do a large volume of sales.” He added, “We are exploring a variety of programs geared toward lower income shoppers,” like food stamps and discounted memberships.

The market will not be more expensive than regular urban supermarkets, Renner insisted, citing the co-op’s model, City Market in Burlington, VT, which successfully keeps prices competitive.

Christopher Lyon, an Assistant Operations manager at City Market, said that the co-op does price comparisons with competing supermarkets every month to ensure that it is maintaining competitive prices. “We go around grabbing 20 or more products that we think are staples for most families”—including milk, butter, eggs, and produce items—“and then we do a comparison with all of our local competition. We’ve found that almost every time we’re able to come out with a lower basket total than Price Chopper, Shaw’s, and Healthy Living.”

In response to concerns about the potentially narrow customer base, Lyon affirms that City Market absolutely has a diverse clientele. “We have a lot of folks in town that are students. We have a lot of folks in town that are families. We have a refugee population in this city, and a large percentage of our shoppers also use food stamps. So yes, it’s very diverse.”

Many pointed out that having a food co-op like the Elm City Market is not meant to stand in for a mainstream supermarket, nor are the two mutually exclusive. Erin Wirpsa Eisenberg, Executive Director of CitySeed, an organization that runs New Haven’s farmers’ markets and is represented in the core leadership group planning the co-op, said, “I don’t think New Haven needs one or the other. I think New Haven needs both.”

Zan Romanoff, Program Coordinator of the Yale Sustainable Food Project, said, “The co-op, while certain to be a valuable source of fresh food for the community, can’t be what Shaw’s was—and perhaps shouldn’t be. The retail logic that drove Shaw’s is the same logic that drove it out of New Haven.”

These issues of universal accessibility aside, there are clearly huge benefits to having an establishment like the Elm City Food Co-op downtown. “Having a supermarket is part of a vision where downtown New Haven is an attractive place to live and work,” Rubin said. He added, “Food has really come back on the agenda—people realize that access to food is as important as access to housing, jobs, education. It’s all a part of the same picture.”

As Howard Turnage, a Trumbull dining hall staffer, put it when I asked for his take on the Co-op: “If you’re all about fresh food—well, who doesn’t like fresh food?”