When Jeanette Federigi first moved into an apartment building in Vallejo, California, in 2001, the local Safeway store had recently closed. Her daughter was five at the time; for the rest of her entire childhood, there was no grocery store in the neighborhood. This wasn’t necessarily a question of the neighborhood being unable to economically sustain a grocery store. In fact, no grocery store was allowed: Safeway had placed a restriction on the deed to the property that said no other supermarket could move in for the next 15 years.
“This is a community that already lacks access to healthy foods,” says Lauren Ornelas, executive director of the Food Empowerment Project, a food justice organization that works in Vallejo. “So what people were forced to do is go to the liquor stores and go to the convenience stores. Those don’t normally offer a lot of fresh produce. They can get the sodas and the chips, sugary foods, but they aren’t necessarily getting fresh produce, which they desperately want.”
The deed restriction in the Vallejo store ended in 2015, and a Grocery Outlet moved in. But when Ornelas learned that similar deed restrictions are used across the grocery industry, she launched a petition and a series of protests asking Safeway to stop the practice. “Here you have a corporation, whose business is to provide food to the community, that is actually depriving them of that,” she says.
The restrictions are typically put in place when a grocery store that owns a particular property decides to sell it, but wants to limit competition–perhaps pushing customers to shop at another branch of its own chain farther away. “They may be closing that location but they still want to control the market share of that location,” says Heather Wooten, vice president of programs at ChangeLab Solutions, an organization that works on food policy among other issues.
In Washington, D.C., in the Ward 7 neighborhood–also considered a food desert, where residents lack convenient access to fresh, healthy food–Safeway had another type of restrictive covenant, negotiated with the city, that prevented a new supermarket from being built in a nearby shopping center. When Walmart wanted to move in and sell food, it took lengthy negotiations, and a deal from the city to pay off Safeway, to allow the move (Walmart ultimately decided not to build the store).
D.C.’s Ward 7, a predominantly black and low-income neighborhood, has only two grocery stores serving around 70,000 people; in Ward 6, where household incomes are roughly twice as large, there are 10 groceries. (Ward 8, an even poorer black neighborhood with nearly 80,000 residents, has only one supermarket.)
“We need as many grocery stores as we can get,” says Beverley Wheeler, director of D.C. Hunger Solutions, an initiative of the nonprofit Food Research and Action Center, who herself grew up in Ward 7.
The city council temporarily banned covenants that prevent new grocery stores from being built on the site of closed stores, though Wheeler points out that this only happened after residents of affluent Ward 3 (with nine grocery stores) faced the issue in their neighborhood. “When there was a hint that there might be a restrictive covenant put on a grocery store in Ward 3, which is predominantly white and predominantly high income, people jumped into action to put temporary legislation in place,” she says. “Where was our protection in Ward 7 and 8 where we have food deserts?”
In part, the challenge is that many people are not even aware that restrictive covenants on grocery stores exist, or may not have the bandwidth to address it. “Who sits around thinking about restrictive covenants when you work two jobs and you’re on SNAP and food stamps and you’re trying to figure out where you’re going to get food?” Wheeler says.
Some cities, such as Chicago and Madison, Wisconsin, have ordinances that ban this type of restrictive covenant. Other towns, such as Greeley, Colorado–where a Safeway store closed in 2014 and banned another grocery from using the space for 20 years, leaving the downtown a food desert–unsuccessfully tried to fight the restriction.
“Safeway offered the city a preposterous alternative that would allow a grocery store to utilize the site but only if the city would guarantee to underwrite any loss in store sales and their next closest store located a little better than two miles away,” Rebecca Safarik, assistant city manager for Greeley, writes in an email. After the property became blighted, the City of Greeley purchased it, but is using it for other purposes, such as a new fire station.
Of course, even if an abandoned store isn’t restricted from becoming another grocery, that doesn’t mean that another company will want to move in. In Bellingham, Washington, an Albertsons supermarket closed in 2016, leaving a neighborhood without any large stores nearby. Albertsons, which owned the property, planned to restrict another grocery from moving in, but after pressure from the community, relented. But the economics of the situation meant that no other supermarket wanted to lease the space.
“The specs don’t work out,” says April Barker, a city councilmember in Bellingham, who worked with a union to try to find a union grocery to move into the space. “We just don’t have the tax base, the money that could even fuel it.”
Part of the challenge, she says, is structural: The neighborhood was designed to sprawl, so there aren’t enough people nearby to support the store. And even before the Albertsons closed, residents who could afford to drive elsewhere to shop often did. Supermarkets also face other problems. The massive storefronts that might have made sense to build in the 1980s are harder to support when business keeps eroding (pet food, for example, once sold primarily in groceries, is now sold at big box pet stores; online shopping continues to take other sales).
“Every time you’re ordering things online when you could be supporting a local business . . . we’re the ones fueling all of this,” Barker says. “But we’re also very frustrated with what we’re creating.”
In low-income neighborhoods, like D.C.’s Ward 7, food retailers might argue that they can’t make enough money to open new stores. But if the reasons that food deserts exist are complex, Ornelas sees restrictive covenants in deeds as relatively low-hanging fruit. “This is one thing that could happen,” she says. “It won’t fix everything, not by any means. But it will be one less barrier to face.”
The restrictions are likely more damaging in certain neighborhoods, such as urban areas that are highly developed and don’t have space to build new stores. “I think it probably depends on the urban context,” says Wooten. “You can imagine communities that might be particularly hurt by this kind of legal tactic.”
The Food Empowerment Project is targeting Safeway in particular, which was acquired by Albertsons in 2014. An Albertsons spokesperson, however, says that while this type of restriction is not uncommon in the supermarket industry, the restrictions are “rare” in its 2,300 stores. (In Vallejo, when the restriction was originally put in place, Albertsons had not yet merged with Safeway.) Wooten says that because the practice seems to be common, local ordinances to ban the covenants might be more effective. “I have a hard time imagining that any one grocery chain would agree voluntarily to do this if it’s industry standard,” she says.