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Feature Mon Mar 07 2011
"This is just wonderful, a wonderful surprise. Oh, I can't believe it! You hear about churches giving out stuff and everything. This has never happened in this neighborhood that I know of. Not from a store. When was the last time you heard of a store giving you twelve dollars' worth of food? Thank you."
These words of gratitude were expressed by Barbara Sullivan, who has lived in the Avalon Park community for eighteen years, in response to the bag of groceries that contained oatmeal, fruit snacks, cereal bars, popcorn, raisin bran, corn and fruit cocktail left on her doorstep by Save-A-Lot Food Store's street team. "I came out because my mother took in a bag. She said, 'I don't know what's going on...all this food." She thought it was a church or something. I looked at the bag and it said 'Save-A-Lot.' I go, 'I don't believe this!' I saw the truck and came out to see if you were going down the block."
Save-A-Lot Food surprised nearly 7,000 families with a free bag of groceries this past Monday in the Chatham, Englewood, West Englewood, Avalon Park and Greater Grand Crossing neighborhoods where they opened new stores the previous week. All of these areas are considered to be food deserts because they meet one or more of the criteria: 1) no grocery stores are in the immediate community; 2) more fast food restaurants than healthy options are in the area; or 3) the price of healthy food is not affordable.
The response to the new stores appear to very positive in the community; even Mayor-Elect Rahm Emanuel showed his support on opening day. Joe Davis, the manager of the Stony Island location, reported that "we have been getting a lot of 'thank yous' from the community: 'Thanks for coming' and 'Thanks for opening a store.' There used to be a grocery at this location here four or five years ago. Now, they are glad [the Stony Island location] has opened up again. They don't have to travel so far to shop now." Before the opening of Save-A-Lot, only five full service grocery stores were open to serve a three mile radius, with other options being liquor or corner stores that had a limited food supply.
Resident shopper Shauna Turner lives right around the corner from Save-A-Lot. "I missed the store and I'm happy there's one here. We haven't had a grocery store in five or six years. I know a lot of people are happy it's here. There are a lot of older of people in the neighborhood and they didn't have anywhere to go to get food," she said. Turner has visited the store twice since its opening and she has had a good experience. Prior to Save-A-Lot's opening, she was shopping at stores whose locations are challenging to reach for seniors and people with limited transportation options. Save-A-Lot is in walking distance to many residents.
When the street team first started ringing doorbells, there was lots of cautious peeking out of windows, but no doors were opening. As the residents continued to watch the team walk up and down the block and leave bags on porches and doorknobs, they became more comfortable. A few even came outside to thank them.
Justin Lambert, who has lived in the neighborhood for 40 years, was one of the first to come to the door to express his gratitude. "I feel good about my bag. It's a blessing." He had already visited the new store on opening day. "It's great that a store is in the community. It's nice; it's clean up there."
The street team caught up with Tiffany Taylor as she was getting into her car to take her daughter to school. She was happy about Save-A-Lot coming to the community because she didn't have to drive so far to get her groceries anymore. Taylor said that when she saw the street team through her window, she thought "I hope they hurry up and come to me."
Darick Jordan was shocked. He exclaimed, "I've been here since 1967. This is the first time I've ever seen a grocery store do anything for the community. It's wonderful; a store giving back... 'cause people spend their money. It's good to get something back sometimes." The Stony Island location used to be Stony Island Foods, and was an A&P before then. Jordan worked at both stores.
Street team members Jenaya and Solomon were just as excited about delivering the groceries as the residents were about receiving them. Jenaya felt that Save-A-Lot's giveaway was a good thing. "I'm glad I'm connecting with the people over here. It's a very nice area to be in. I'm helping out the community; it's like giving back, actually." She lives in suburban South Holland. Solomon, who lives in Rogers Park, expressed similar feelings. "I feel like I'm giving back what was given to me. It's like they were giving us an opportunity, and at the same time we are doing a job where we are giving a service. It's a great thing, especially right now with the recession."
Save-A-Lot planned this surprise grocery giveaway "to introduce ourselves to the neighborhood and the community and to really say thank you for having us here. To let [residents] know we are committed and excited to be part of the community. And to show them how much food they can get for twelve dollars," says Chon Tomlin, a store representative.
Customers have been responding positively to the range of foods offered. Davis noted that "customers are gravitating toward healthy foods - the fresh produce and frozen vegetables. Yogurt has been selling very well."
The store isn't just providing healthy and affordable foods to the community, they are also providing jobs. Approximately 125 new jobs were filled among the five new stores. Davis himself interviewed over 300 people for positions. "Most of my employees are local, but there are few that are spread out from Chicago."
Traditionally, prices in the corner stores that dominate black communities tend to be higher because owners cannot buy large volumes of food, and mark up prices to make a profit. Because Save-A-Lot is a discount retailer, their prices are often lower than those of conventional grocery stores. "We are markedly lower than Jewel," says Davis.
Food deserts are commonly in low-income communities. However, Tomlin explained that Save-A-Lot selected neighborhoods based on research conducted by Mari Gallagher Research and Consulting Group, whose firm looks at food deserts and their impact on public health. Many communities on the south side were identified as having significant food access problems. In fact, many of them have been without grocery stores for long periods of time, which requires them to travel long distances to get milk, bread, fresh meat, fruits and vegetables. The lack of access has had a direct impact on the health of area residents. Some of the risks associated with living in food deserts include obesity, cancer and cardiovascular disease due to the dependency on food from corner stores, which often sell only liquor, sugar-sweetened beverages, junk food and candy. Abundance of fast food restaurants also contribute to poor health outcomes in the community.
According to Tomlin, "Our core central customer is within a mile of the store. A mile is a long way to get fresh produce or milk. If you drive, that's convenient. But that's a long way if you want to continue to feed your family fresh, healthy food. We try to identify those issues and try to be a solution to that problem. We wanted to make sure we served the community as a whole."
This feature is supported in part by a Community News Matters grant from The Chicago Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. More information here.