The fight over fair pay and working conditions for grocery workers — who have often been lauded as frontline heroes amid the coronavirus pandemic — has spurred the closure of two grocery stores in Long Beach, and more across the region.
And in so doing, it’s launched a conversation about food security for some of the area’s poorest and most disadvantaged residents.
When the closures were announced in February, community members called on the supermarket giant behind the stores, Kroger, to reverse its decision. But the discussion has since expanded.
Rather than rescind the mandate for a temporary pay bump for grocery workers, which Kroger cited as the reason for the shutdowns, Long Beach officials have instead moved on to a new area of focus: Ensuring poorer communities and neighborhoods have access to affordable, high-quality food.
Kroger shuttered a Ralphs in East Long Beach, 3380 N. Los Coyotes Diagonal, and a Food 4 Less in North Long Beach, 2185 E. South St., earlier this month. A city analysis found that while the Ralphs closure is “a concern for residents in the immediate area,” Health and Human Services Director Kelly Colopy wrote in a Friday, April 23, memo to City Council members, there are at least seven other grocery stores within 2 miles of the property, including Pavilions, Stater Brothers Markets, Amazon Fresh and Grocery Outlet, which are all less than a mile away.
The Food 4 Less closure, by comparison, could have a significant impact on the surrounding North Long Beach community, which already has limited access to fresh food. It’s a predicament that led Vice Mayor Rex Richardson, whose Ninth District includes the property site, to push the city to create a food security plan to ensure residents impacted by the closures — as well as residents who more generally have poor access to healthy food — as part of its plan for recovering economically from the coronavirus pandemic.
“To offset the sudden economic shock that may be created — the food shock — by the closure of these grocery stores, we should prepare an equity-informed food security recovery strategy, a food security plan,” Richardson said during the February council meeting, “and this should be put in place to prevent further escalation of food insecurity in disproportionately impacted areas.”
Colopy’s Friday memo outlined the progress Long Beach has already made on that plan.
Throughout the pandemic, she wrote, the city has offered emergency food distribution events, meal and grocery delivery and projects like pop-up food pantries and farm box delivery. It has also helped organizations purchase the necessary equipment to distribute healthy perishable food.
Long Beach also has an effort underway to support the conversion of small markets, convenience stores and liquor stores into healthy food markets. And some other programs the city hopes to launch soon, she wrote, include:
An affordable healthy food market at the city-owned Atlantic Farms Bridge Housing Community in North Long Beach, which will give folks there, who are homeless, training and work experience;
A mobile farmers market that will make stops in areas that don’t have access to traditional farmers markets; and
At least one “food hub” for low-income neighborhoods that can serve as a distribution point for healthy food markets, where food may be more affordable than elsewhere in the area.
But the now-closed Food 4 Less property also offers an opportunity for more food security in North Long Beach, Colopy wrote. While Kroger’s lease on the building runs for another six-to-12 months, the property owner, Auburndale Properties, has already been in touch with the city about what may be next for the site.
Representatives for Auburndale Properties did not respond to requests for comment, but Long Beach Economic Development Director John Keisler said the firm has signaled it is willing to work with the city on finding a tenant or a new use for the property that suits the local community.
Colopy, in her memo, wrote that “staff have engaged with at least one well-known, high-quality, full-service grocer who has expressed interest in building a new location in North Long Beach,” though she declined to share which store that may be.
Richardson, in a Friday phone interview, confirmed “there’s significant interest from a major health food grocer to come to North Long Beach,” but he also declined to share a name.
It’s still unclear, Richardson said, whether that grocer would be interested in the Food 4 Less property or another site in the area; city staff are exploring which properties may be well-suited for a major grocery store.
While the Food 4 Less site may seem like an obvious choice, Richardson said, he has other ideas for the property.
“Personally, I would love to see redevelopment of the site,” he said. “It’s a large property, right in the heart of North Long Beach, with great opportunity for housing, for grocery, for banking, and we’ve done it before in North Long Beach. So having a great site — there’s plenty of opportunity for development there.”
Because the site is private, Long Beach itself will not have the final say in whatever comes next. But Richardson and Keisler both said Auburndale Properties’ cooperation so far bodes well.
Richardson was cautious in his optimism about the opportunities the property presents. But he did say the groundwork Long Beach has laid in recent years could make some of his more ambitious ideas real possibilities. He pointed to the zoning, parking and other changes in the citywide Land Use Element, which the council approved in 2018, and the ongoing UPLAN, which targets North Long Beach specifically.
“Because of the decisions we’ve made,” Richardson said, “this creates more opportunity to help reshape the future for communities like North Long Beach.
“It’s time to rethink retail in general, prioritize housing, change some of the rules that prohibit medical offices and banks,” he said. “We’ve done that work.”
Now, as the historically underserved neighborhood could potentially both attract a big-name health-conscious grocery store and be home to yet another new development, Richardson said the fruits of that work are becoming clear.
But as Long Beach plots out its recovery from the pandemic, he also said it’s important to remember who these new businesses would serve.
“We’re in a place where, again, there’s going to be shifts,” Richardson said. “The economy is changing.”
The question, he said, is this:
“How do we prepare our community to meet this challenge and ensure the changes that are happening benefit our community, and make sure we can benefit from the economic recovery to come?”
Of course, there’s no clear-cut answer. But whether it’s fair pay, food security or potential new development projects, Long Beach officials, it seems, are trying.