The East Side’s grocery scene got a little more desolate late last year when the Haggen grocery store on South 38th Street closed its doors.
Haggen replaced an Albertson’s at the very same location. Now both are gone, the location sits empty, and residents of the East Side are left with one fewer option when it comes to purchasing groceries — especially fresh food and produce.
As the area’s City Councilman Marty Campbell tells it, the result is residents are forced to travel to the Safeway at South 38th Street and South M Street, or all the way up to the Safeway at South 72nd Street and Portland Avenue.
“I think we find it very challenging,” Campbell says of the lengths people now have to go to for food.
Campbell recently started working at the Tacoma Housing Authority’s Salishan, the mixed-income development at East 44th and Portland Avenue. Lately, he says, there’s been a noticeable increase in the number of abandoned Safeway shopping carts found there.
“People are taking the bus down (to the Safeway) and just walking back,” he tells me. “That’s what it’s forcing people to do.”
It’s a straight shot on Portland Avenue, but the Safeway at 72nd is still nearly 30 blocks away.
Every single household in the east Tacoma area has a grocery budget. … Nobody’s saving up money waiting for a grocery store to open.
Bert Hambleton, president of Hambleton Resources Inc.
The set of specific circumstances that creates such “food deserts” manifests into predictable obstacles. Absent a supermarket within a convenient distance, many East Siders are forced to acquire necessities in unlikely places, like Walgreens or 7-Eleven, left to scour limited food selections that, nutritionally, leave much to be desired.
As I’ve noted before, however, not everyone believes food deserts exist.
Bert Hambleton, the president of Hambleton Resources Inc., is one of those people.
I spoke with Hambleton last year about the shortage of grocery stores on the East Side, and he told me without hesitation: “Every single household in the east Tacoma area has a grocery budget. … Nobody’s saving up money waiting for a grocery store to open.”
I called Hambleton again last week, wondering if the Haggen closure had changed his tune.
It had not.
Hambleton reiterated that his Bellevue-based consulting company has done a number of studies looking at the feasibility of new grocery stores in Tacoma. That there aren’t more stores on the East Side, he maintains, continues to demonstrate that most retailers don’t think a new East Side location makes financial sense.
He says that’s partly because, these days, growth in the grocery industry is happening in stores offering “natural, organic, fresh and local” products. In other words, higher end stores such as Whole Foods. That being the case, “You don’t have the most attractive demographic (on the East Side), from what sells in the United States,” he explains.
That may not be fair, but it probably is accurate.
Hambleton’s analysis of grocery economics is as blunt as it is telling, and only further illustrates the challenges.
That the now-vacant Haggen on South 38th is one of only a handful of locations in the state that, as of late last year, hadn’t received a bid from a new grocer during the ongoing bankruptcy auction suggest he knows how the industry operates.
Hambleton tells me that, for supermarkets, the bankruptcy auction process is often dominated by big players such as Safeway and Albertsons, behemoths that make their bids for stores in blocks. Eventually, he says, another grocer might be interested in the former Haggen location, but it will take a precise set of circumstances — and the decision will come down to dollars and cents.
“Truly, there is nobody operating a grocery store to really serve any one market. They get in it to make a return,” Hambleton says. “If they can get a return, they’ll come.”
Hunger and access to healthy food isn’t something you put into a ten-year plan. It’s something that needs to be in your today plan.
Tacoma City Councilman Marty Campbell
While there’s some hope that a smaller retailer — in the tier occupied by the likes of Saars Marketplace — might eventually be interested in the location, right now nothing seems imminent. Campbell assures the city’s economic development department is “tracking the site very closely.”
Until something more substantial materializes, though, what we’re left with appears to be a mix of small “innovative” fixes, as Campbell calls them, while working to change the larger narrative on the East Side.
That means things like the East Side Farmers Market that kicked off last year, more community gardens, and more stops for the mobile Fish Food Bank.
It also means tackling more challenging issues such as bringing unemployment in the area down and wages up.
“For me, the time line is now,” Campbell tells me. “Hunger and access to healthy food isn’t something you put into a 10-year plan. It’s something that needs to be in your today plan.”
That’s true, but unfortunately changes probably won’t come overnight.