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City supermarket closes, leaving a “food desert” along Whalley Avenue

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2010 - Autumn


When Shaw’s opened one of its few urban stores on Whalley Avenue in 1998, it brought fresh, affordable food to the Yale community and the nearby Dwight Street neighborhood. In January Shaw’s’ corporate parent, SuperValu, announced that it was selling its 18 stores in Connecticut to “operate more efficiently and effectively.” Only two stores, the Whalley store and another in Mansfield, lacked a buyer. “It was like losing a family member,” said Linda Townsend-Maier, executive director of the Greater Dwight Development Corp., owner of the property, which also includes a pediatric dental office, a Rent-A-Center, an auto parts store, and a laundromat.

“Lots of people shopped there, and a lot of those people don’t have transportation,” Townsend-Meier said. She fears a return to the pre-supermarket days, when area residents relied on corner stores and fast food joints. “That is responsible for a lot of the obesity that you see,” she said.

The store’s closing caused concern not just in the neighborhood but also among Yale researchers who have studied the impacts of urban “food deserts.” A food desert, said Roberta R. Friedman, Sc.M., public policy director for Yale’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, is a district that lacks “access to the fresh, nutritious, and affordable food that people need to maintain healthy diets and weights. Instead there’s an overabundance of processed foods with little nutrition and plenty of calories, sugar, and fat—not a recipe for good health.”

Marlene B. Schwartz, Ph.D. ’96, the Rudd Center’s deputy director, said the closing threatens to reverse a food climate in New Haven that had improved after Shaw’s opened in 1998. According to Rudd Center research published in Health Affairs in 2008, access to healthy foods in low-income neighborhoods in New Haven was substantially better and more affordable in the early 2000s than in 1971. “The fact that Shaw’s was there improved the quality of food,” she said.

But there were also complaints about Shaw’s, one of which was that it didn’t balance high-end foods with such low-cost “basic stuff” as diapers and baby formula, said Abigail Rider, Yale’s director of university properties. The store’s clientele included residents of a low-income neighborhood, Yale graduate and international students, and members of an Orthodox Jewish community, yet it was stocked for suburban shoppers. “This is something that I don’t think Shaw’s understood,” she said. “Shaw’s was stocking it for only one of their demographics.”

DataHaven, a nonprofit organization that compiles information about the New Haven area, surveyed 2,335 Shaw’s customers and found that more than half walked to the store. Quentin Howard Jr., who lives nearby and shopped with his three children, was one of them. “I’m going to have to ask somebody in my family and friends for a ride,” he said, adding that bananas are the only fruit available at his neighborhood store. Bernadette Belton said she has to buy three gallons of milk each time she shops for her children, and “at the corner store you can only get whole milk.”

A 2009 survey of six New Haven neighborhoods by the Community Alliance for Research and Engagement (CARE), a component of the Yale Center for Clinical Investigation, found that of 88 stores, two-thirds were convenience stores selling mostly so-called junk food, and one in five was a liquor store. “The closing of Shaw’s adds to this void,” CARE said in a statement.

Officials hope that the void won’t last long. Rider said that her office is working with SuperValu, the city, and the development corporation to find a replacement.

“Yale has both an interest in helping the community and a vested interest—that there is food for graduate students,” said Robin S. Golden, J.D. ’98, a Yale Law School lecturer who supervises law students in the Community and Economic Development Clinic working on behalf of community groups, including the Greater Dwight Development Corp.