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'Devastating’: Save A Lot grocery store closes in East Baltimore, expanding food desert

Exterior of Save A Lot in the 900 block of N Caroline St in East Baltimore. The grocery store is closed. Oct. 1, 2020.
Exterior of Save A Lot in the 900 block of N Caroline St in East Baltimore. The grocery store is closed. Oct. 1, 2020. (Baltimore Sun)

Doris Minor Terrell has lived in and out of East Baltimore, in or near the Broadway East neighborhood, for more than 40 years.

For at least the past 20 years, food access in the area has been challenging, and is even harder now with the recent closing of Save A Lot grocery store at 929 N. Caroline St. The closure of the supermarket serving the Broadway East, Oliver and Johnston Square neighborhoods expands an existing food desert.

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Minor Terrell, president of the New Broadway East Community Association, can drive to get her groceries, but many residents of the predominantly Black neighborhoods don’t have cars. This forces residents to rely on public transit or carpooling, an issue exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, she said, especially for seniors.

One of the closest traditional grocery store options is another Save A Lot in McElderry Park, about a mile away from the now-closed North Caroline Street location. Otherwise, it’s just corner stores, which have higher prices and limited fresh options, Minor Terrell said.

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A sign listing tenants at Church Square Shopping Center. Save A Lot is closed. Oct. 1, 2020.
A sign listing tenants at Church Square Shopping Center. Save A Lot is closed. Oct. 1, 2020. (Baltimore Sun)

About one in four city residents lives in food deserts, which Baltimore rebranded as “healthy food priority areas,” according to a 2018 Johns Hopkins University study. More than 31% of Black Baltimoreans lived in food deserts as of 2018, about double the rate of any other group and close to four times more than white Baltimoreans, according to the study.

“We cannot abandon people," Minor Terrell said. "If you use the phrase food desert in America, we should have a tinge of guilt. How do we live in the richest country, call ourselves the leader of the world, and have these poverty pockets and food deserts?”

To be officially deemed a “priority area” or food desert, a neighborhood must have low income levels, have poor levels of healthy food availability, have more than 30% of households with no vehicle, and be more than a quarter-mile from a grocery store.

Asked why the Save A Lot closed, company spokesperson Sarah Griffin said in a statement Thursday night: “We’ve been a part of the Baltimore community for more than 20 years. We take the decision to close any Save A Lot location very seriously and regularly review our stores on a number of factors. Unfortunately, as a result of this review, we made the decision to close our Baltimore store on North Caroline Street on September 22.

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"We are grateful to our customers for their loyal support in this location. Our team members, most of whom have transferred, look forward to continuing to serve customers in our other nearby locations. We’re currently in touch with the Baltimore Development Corporation and hope to continue to work together to serve Baltimore residents.”

The closing will have a huge impact on food access, especially for the Black community, said City Councilman Robert Stokes, who represents Baltimore’s 12th District, which includes Oliver and Broadway East. Stokes is meeting with community associations and local pastors to try to build an alliance of groups to push for a new market in the area, while working with the Baltimore Development Corporation, he said.

In the meantime, he’ll work on trying to get Lyft discounts for residents who want to go to markets and work with corner stores to sell fresh vegetables. He’s also planning to talk with the Department of Recreation and Parks to use vans to drive residents to stores.

“We’re making sure we’re getting food to residents,” Stokes said.

With potentially razor-thin profit margins, it can be hard to entice grocery stores into the area, Stokes added. Minor Terrell said she understands these economic issues often cited by many, but she called them excuses.

“Where are the powers that can step in and assist, that can bring the muscle to the table and bring markets to these food deserts? [It] doesn’t appear that it’s equal when we’re trying to service everybody,” Minor Terrell said. “I don’t understand why you have such a large food desert in Black and brown communities.”

Keyon Johnson, community coordinator of Oliver’s OC 250 youth mentoring program, said elected officials often say that grocery stores with fresh food are needed, but don’t deliver.

“It’s no secret what we need. I’m just wondering why it’s not done,” Johnson said. “That’s why the condition of our people is so bad. The only thing we have in our communities is liquor stores and corner stores. Candy, chocolate and alcohol. You can easily get that. There’s one on every other corner.”

China Boak Terrell, president of Baltimore Pumphouse, a food-related anchor development still in progress in Broadway East at 1801 E. Oliver St., said she has been trying to get a grocery store to come into the development for years, to no avail. The margins were too narrow for the stores to afford the build-out they needed, and the development couldn’t afford to cover the build-out, she said.

She said the city should provide financial support to entice markets to come to the neighborhood.

“This is the perfect opportunity for public resources to come in, because the private market isn’t able to get grocery stores into low-income Black and brown communities and keep them there on their own,” Terrell said.

James Bentley, a spokesperson for Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young, said a potential store in the area “could be eligible to receive grocery store property tax credit” and is hopeful the city will be able to replace the Save A Lot with another grocery store.

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