It used to take about an hour for Chauncy Johnson and his 93-year-old great-grandfather to get their groceries in southeastern Colorado Springs, including travel time.
Now, the errand takes about twice as long, because they must drive in heavy traffic to reach Walmart or Sam’s Club while their Kings Soopers is temporarily closed.
“I think it’s a big deal,” he said. “It leaves people without a resource for food. While we do have food pantries and nonprofit organizations that are out here doing as much as they can, they can only do so much with the resources that they have.”
The store is expected to reopen this fall, but in the meantime, Colorado Springs residents have been sounding the alarm about the implications of the grocery store’s absence, especially for people with disabilities, older adults, those on fixed or low incomes and people relying on public transportation.
They say other grocery stores have closed in the neighborhood, which is filled with fast-food outlets, and they wish a grocery retailer would commit to investing in the part of the city just west of the airport.
“The disinvestment in southeast (Colorado Springs) has occurred for decades, and it will take time to come back from that and reinvest to the degree truly needed,” said Jessi Bustamante, director of communications for Food to Power, an organization working to cultivate a healthy, equitable food system in Colorado Springs.
“In the immediate term, we’re grateful for partners with pantries and mobile markets,” she said. “In the midterm, we’re hoping to convince some existing farmers markets to pilot locations in southeast and that could be a pretty fast, if not immediate, way to bring more fresh food into the area. And then long term, we just need more food access points and that could take a lot of different models.”
Why the store closed
King Soopers on South Academy Boulevard, located between the Pikes Peak Park and Deerfield Hills neighborhoods, closed without notice June 20, after asbestos was detected in the glue used to hold down floor tiles that had been removed the month before during renovation. King Soopers spokeswoman Jessica Trowbridge said in a news release that the closure was “out of an abundance of caution.”
The company has said it plans to reopen the remodeled store this fall, according to news reports.
The closure, even if it is temporary, is particularly painful because it leaves people in low-income neighborhoods more than a half-mile from the nearest supermarket, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Access Research Atlas.
“Food access is something that can really impact all these other areas of life. If you don’t have access to nutritious food, it’s going to impact your work, it’s going to impact your kids and their success in school, and all these other things,” said Ellie Agar, director of communications for Hunger Free Colorado, a statewide nonprofit connecting people to food resources and working on policy solutions to end hunger. “I’m hoping that the store doesn’t have to be closed too long.”
When a grocery store closes in a neighborhood with few other healthy food options, fresh food, like fruits and vegetables, becomes even more scarce. Residents find themselves traveling farther to other supermarkets and shop less often, or they may visit smaller, more expensive grocery stores nearby. They may also shop at gas stations or convenience stores that sell packaged or processed foods, which can lead to health problems, if the trend occurs long term, Agar said.
People without a car might have to travel farther to another grocery store on public transportation, and they may only be able to carry home a small amount of groceries, which can be difficult for older adults or people with disabilities.
It’s not only about the groceries
The King Soopers on South Academy has a pharmacy and a Western Union inside, meaning shoppers may have lost access to other crucial services, such as prescriptions or other medical care. Families that may have been supporting loved ones in other countries by sending them money might also have lost the ability to do so — or they’re traveling farther to do so, Agar said.
There are also implications for food pantries and other organizations that “rescue” food items that would otherwise be wasted or thrown away, Agar said.
“Now that food pantry is not getting that fresh produce, or bread items, or dairy anymore, which is impacting — even further down the line — individuals who are already on a tight budget because of inflation and because of transportation and are now having to find new places,” she said. “It’s more than just a grocery store.”
If a person arrived at the shuttered King Soopers and realized it had closed, their options would be limited and their trek to the closest supermarkets would be difficult, especially without a car.
A Walmart Neighborhood Market at 1622 S. Academy Blvd. and a Safeway at 1425 S. Murray Blvd. are the two supermarkets closest to the King Soopers that closed.
However, it would take 30 minutes to walk to Walmart or a person would have to walk 7 minutes to the bus stop and ride the bus for 8 minutes before walking 3 more minutes to get there, and that might be difficult on the way back while carrying groceries.
The trip to Safeway, on the easiest and quickest bus route, would require a 3-minute walk to the bus stop, a 1-minute bus ride and then an 8-minute walk to the store. The next easiest bus route would require a person to walk 20 minutes to the bus stop, ride the bus for 2 minutes and then walk 2 more minutes. If a person walked the entire way, it would take 38 minutes.
It would take 1 hour and 4 minutes to take a bus to the next closest Walmart Superstore at 4425 Venetucci Blvd. A walk there would take 1 hour and 37 minutes.
Otherwise, residents would have access to a Korean grocery store, a Mexican grocery store that also includes a restaurant and deli, two discount grocery stores that are sometimes closed when their shelves must be restocked, fast-food restaurants and convenience stores with packaged foods.
Another King Soopers closure
Councilwoman Yolanda Avila said this is at least the third King Soopers that has closed in southeastern Colorado Springs, an area of the city she’s lived in most of her life.
A King Soopers on the southeastern corner of Circle Drive and Fountain Boulevard closed permanently after the Martin Luther King Bypass was built in 1994, she said. Sales at the King Soopers had “dropped considerably” after the bypass opened that year, which cut access to the store, the supermarket’s then executive vice president told the Colorado Springs Gazette Telegraph for a story in 1995.
Another King Soopers, behind Mission Trace Shopping Center on South Academy, has been vacant for years, Avila said. “You would basically have to tear down whatever is left there to do anything with it.”
The southeast area needs a grocery store owner who is committed to investing in the community, Avila said. Many buildings are also abandoned in the neighborhood and could be activated to provide fresh food, she said.
“We need something that is sustainable,” she said. “Organizations come together to make sure there’s pop-ups and that we have food, but that is not fair to our residents that this has been placed on their shoulders to care for our neighbors in the area. We need a really great grocery store in that area.”
In the U.S., food is viewed as a commodity, and it’s valued for its price and its profit, said Emily Settlecowski, manager of strategic initiatives at Metro Caring, a Denver-based organization working to meet people’s immediate need for nutritious food and to end the root causes of hunger such as unaffordable housing, low wages, racism and oppression, according to the organization’s website.
“When we think about food access, or purchasing food and how we get it, most of the ways in which U.S. individuals engage with our food system is around, ‘How much can I afford to buy, and what product can I afford to buy, versus what other values we might have towards our food, like our cultural connection, or that it is a human right, or how it impacts our environment,” she said.
Similarly, when grocery store chains are deciding to open stores, they often focus on potential sales per square foot, which is influenced by demographics.
“They’ll look at, what’s the wealth like here? What are the individual household makeups like? How many single parent households are there? How many elderly, or disabled folks or folks on public benefits are in this neighborhood?” she said.
Communities struggling to afford food are often the same ones with too few grocery stores or little access to fresh foods, she said.
New language for a persistent problem
Food justice organizations are “reframing” language and are moving away from calling communities “food deserts,” and instead using the label “food apartheid neighborhoods,” invoking the official racial segregation policy against the non-white majority in South Africa, Settlecowski said.
“A community having complete lack of access to food is by design,” she said. “We have communities that don’t have as many grocery stores as other communities, and it’s tied super closely when we look at demographics across income, race and citizenship.”
A 2017 El Paso County Health Department study found the highest levels of poverty in the city in the southeast quadrant, where at the time, about 46% of residents in some areas were living below the federal poverty line. It also found the lowest life expectancy on the southeast side of the city, where residents were expected to live up to 16 fewer years than people living in northern neighborhoods, where as many as 90% of residents were out of poverty.
A proposed merger of grocery store chains has heightened anxiety about food access, and not just in Colorado Springs.
Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser is holding public listening sessions across the state to hear opinions and concerns about the proposed merger of Kroger and Albertsons, which owns Safeway, and how it could impact Colorado communities. He visited people in Colorado Springs late last month.
People there criticized the temporary closure, and their comments underscore the significant impact communities face when access to fresh groceries decreases, Weiser wrote in an email sent by his spokesman in late July.
On Oct. 14, Kroger, the parent company of King Soopers, announced it had agreed to purchase Albertsons and Safeway in a $24.6-billion supermarket merger. If it closes, the deal would have nationwide impacts on consumers, including the customers of a total of 253 King Soopers, City Market, Albertsons and Safeway stores in Colorado, according to a Colorado Attorney General’s webpage devoted to the issue.
There are only a few Safeway and King Soopers stores in Colorado Springs, but southeast residents and food justice organization leaders fear some stores will be closed permanently, including the store on South Academy.
The Colorado Department of Law is reviewing the proposed merger to ensure it’s legal, does not undermine competition, and is fair to consumers, workers, farmers and suppliers.
“From the conversations we have held thus far, it is clear that Coloradans have a range of concerns about the merger in terms of its impact on consumers, workers and suppliers,” he wrote in an email.
Getting corporations to prioritize people
Kroger said it will not close any stores, distribution centers or manufacturing facilities as a result of the merger, and that it will not lay off any frontline associates, according to its website.
“At some point, there has to be benefits to customers and to people and to workers, and this merger doesn’t benefit any of those people,” said Jeannie Lira, who lives in the Deerfield Hills neighborhood of Colorado Springs, about a mile from the King Soopers that temporarily closed on South Academy.
“This is about corporations benefiting, and so there has to be a point where individuals need to band together to make sure that as individuals, we’re prioritized over corporations,” she said.
There are no bus routes in her neighborhood that run to King Soopers, she said. “We don’t have any bus routes internally in this neighborhood.”
Lira has been shopping at King Soopers for 15 years, picking up groceries, medicine from the pharmacy and using the gas pumps at the store. Now, she shops at Walmart, but said meats and fruits are of a poorer quality.
On July 12, King Soopers said in a news release it would begin offering free delivery services to “impacted customers” who shopped at the South Academy location.
Lira said she placed a delivery order shortly after the closure but King Soopers charged her for the delivery fee. She ran out of asthma medication for a week after the closure when the store’s auto-refill option seemed to malfunction.
King Soopers is operating a mobile pharmacy unit in the parking lot of the store every day from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. The retailer also said it will provide free prescription delivery while the store is closed.
King Soopers also made a $5,000 donation to Care & Share Food Bank of Southern Colorado to help with ongoing community support efforts, said Joanna Weise, marketing and communications director for the organization.
Lira said King Soopers has addresses of customers and could have sent out coupons and flyers after the shutdown offering information about food resources nearby.
“It just says a lot. When the city is growing so rapidly, and people are on fixed incomes, and they’re asking for resources, I just think it’s not hard to give it to them,” said Johnson, the man who shops with his great-grandfather. “Even if it means looking somewhere else — another zoning place or another plot of land in order to make that happen. I think that’s possible.”
Closing the food access gap
A proposed ballot initiative in Colorado Springs would allow voters to decide if part of their TABOR refund could go toward acquiring a space to train police officers. Johnson said part of the money could be used to create a food access center in southeastern Colorado Springs.
“Maybe that could go toward building a new grocery store establishment or something like that, in order for people on the south side of town to actually get food,” Johnson said.
Lira said she wishes the mayor and other city leaders, as well as supermarket owners, were more engaged in closing the growing food-access gap in Colorado Springs.
“Right now, the only people that are trying to step up are the nonprofits,” she said. “What does that look like as a city to make sure all people are not lost or forgotten, especially when it comes to basic human needs and rights?”
Food to Power is seeing increased demand for its free grocery program since the King Soopers closed, said Patience Kabwasa, the nonprofit’s executive director.
The program has operated for several years on Tuesdays and Saturdays from noon to 2 p.m. at 1090 S. Institute St., in the westernmost neighborhood of southeastern Colorado Springs, and does not ask community members for anything other than their name and how much food they need, she said.
Food to Power is also organizing listening sessions for community members to help keep track of current food resources available and to find and create long-term solutions that are community driven, she said.
Solid Rock Community Development Center, an organization working to revitalize southeastern Colorado Springs, has also seen increased need since the closure also has a grocery store program on Tuesdays from 2 to 6 p.m.
The organization hosts free farmers markets during the summer and had its first one last month in front of a King Soopers that previously closed, Bustamante said.
Care & Share Food Bank for Southern Colorado also held mobile markets immediately after the shutdown, she said.
Local human service organizations have banded together to provide an immediate response since the closure, but long-term solutions are also crucial, Kabwasa said.
Improving access to food requires increasing the number of grocery outlets in the area and that would take years, she added.
The industrial food system is failing to fulfill its basic goals of adequately feeding people, Settlecowski said, calling food a basic human right. “Until we’re able to reconcile that, there’s not going to be any reason or incentive for private companies to take care of people or ensure access to a human right like food.”
The so-called “universal basic food model,” supported by her organization, would provide guaranteed access to nutritious and culturally relevant foods to anybody regardless of their income. “And it’s rooted in the truth that food is a human right,” she said.
Metro Caring is exploring ways to work toward achieving the universal food model, Settlecowski said.
“We’re already spending so much money on the federal level to address hunger and using that (universal food model) to find better solutions to ending hunger” is crucial, she said. “But there’s a lot of power in these communities and different ways of providing for one another, regardless of the situation. Communities are strong and resilient.”