A merger of grocery stores has turned this Bellingham neighborhood into a food desert. Who else is next?

Grocery shopping is something we all do and is very personal. People have strong feelings about where and how they get their food. A proposed $25 billion merger between two of the country’s biggest supermarket chains could affect how millions of customers shop for groceries.

“State of the Cart” is a four-part series that examines the proposed merger from multiple perspectives: consumers, workers, the community itself, and its impact on our shopping habits.


The proposed merger of Roger and Albertsons is under intense public scrutiny. And for good reason. In 2015 Albertsons acquired Safeway. To comply with antitrust laws, the companies have downsized nearly 200 of his stores. One of those stores was in Birchwood, a neighborhood of Bellingham, a city of 92,000 located 90 miles north of Seattle. The closure created Food Dessert, one of Bellingham’s most racially and socioeconomically diverse neighborhoods, which continues to this day.

Caption: Volunteer Carter Fuehr prepares produce ahead of the weekly food distribution event in Bellingham on Saturday, December 10, 2022.

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Every Saturday morning, community volunteers set up a table in the credit union parking lot across Northwest Avenue. There are tables of donated and rescued food such as fresh produce, bread and even pizza boxes.

“Rain or shine, we are here,” said organizer of the Birchwood Food Desert Fighters, a local volunteer group that collects and organizes donations for the weekly food distribution. said Tina McKim, one of

Albertson stores once settled in the area. It was the perfect place for people like Julia de la Cruz.

“At the time, we didn’t have a car,” de la Cruz recalls. “So it was really good. I was in a wheelchair, so her husband brought me here in a wheelchair.”

But 38 years later, in 2016, a merger with Safeway closed Albertsons. At the time, residents didn’t give much thought to the closure.

Caption: Founding Committee member Tina McKim stands in portrait at the weekly food distribution event in Bellingham, Saturday, December 10, 2022. Birchwood residents haven't had a grocery store since 2016, when Albertsons acquired Safeway.

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“Everybody was like, ‘Oh, there’s going to be another grocery store,'” McKim said.

But it didn’t. The community also learned that no new grocers would enter. at least for a while.

“Albertsons had a series of non-compete clauses in the building itself,” McKim said.

The non-compete clause itself was not the issue. That was the term of the clause and it was 22 years.

“It feels vicious,” McKim said.

The majority of Birchwood residents are seniors, students, and immigrants. Many work in the service industry. The nearest store is less than two miles away, so it may not seem like a barrier. However, for those with mobility issues, it requires planning and can take quite some time.

“As a disabled person myself, I know how difficult it can be to get food, and depending on your physical condition at the time,” said McKim, who said her husband was working at the company. He added that he was lucky to work at She shops at Trader Joe’s.

Others approach distance in different ways. Mia Casebeer and her fiancé Dustyn Morris have cars, but limit their shopping to her twice a month.

“Gas is very expensive,” says Casebeer. Besides, she drives to work. Morris said that if she were to shop while Ms. Casebia was at work, the nearest store was a 45-minute walk, she said.

“When I tried to go grocery shopping on my own, I couldn’t bring all the groceries I needed from the store,” he explained.

Caption: Volunteer and shopper Josefina Renteria collects food at the weekly FoodShare event in Bellingham on Saturday, December 10, 2022.

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cautionary tale

The death of the Birchwood Albertsons in 2016 gave birth to food desserts. This is the scenario regulators are trying to avoid repeating in his proposed $25 billion merger between Albertsons and Kroger. Of course, not all store closures lead to food desertification, but when they do, it can be devastating to communities.

For Birchwood, volunteers began sharing weekly meals to fill the void. But food distribution cannot last forever. Residents therefore turned to city hall for a long-term solution.

“They didn’t want us to be forced back to the Albertsons,” said Bellingham City Council Speaker Michael Liliquist. “But at least someone else could come back.” They wanted us to break the limit.

The city will investigate the matter and determine if it can intervene.

“What we quickly learned was that this was a private contract, and the city doesn’t really have the legal authority to go in there and break the contract, at least after the fact,” Liliquist said. He said.

But the Lyricists and other city leaders didn’t give up. They believed the city could intervene because contract restrictions affected a basic public necessity, food. In that sense, cities can use public health and welfare to protect access to local food.

In 2019, the city passed an ordinance. It still allows for restrictive terms that prevent the property from being used as a grocery store, but the ordinance says those terms cannot last for decades. Liliquist said the period needs to be shorter.

“We can do that to give businesses a chance to establish a new location if they relocate,” he said. And someone else is allowed to come in and serve the community.”

Unfortunately for Birchwood residents, the ordinance is not retroactive, so it does not apply to the former Albertsons store location. However, 15 years later he still has the covenant attached to the land until it expires in 2038.

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