The Austin community’s food shopping options may be shrinking as the fate of retail meat giant Moo & Oink is in doubt.
Last week, the Austin Weekly reported that declining sales and a sagging economy may prompt Moo & Oink owners to sale or liquidate its Chicago stores, including a store located on 4848 W. Madison St.
That may signal that one or all of its stores may close, an assertion Moo & Oink has yet to confirm or deny. But an Aug. 2 letter to the company’s creditors by Silverman Consulting states the company is seeking a buyer for its three Chicago stores. If a buyer cannot be found, then the stores will be liquidated.
The chain operates a larger specialty store in the south suburbs, but it is unclear if that store is on the chopping block. The letter only references three Chicago locations. Silverman Consulting, a Skokie-based turnaround and management firm, was appointed by Moo & Oink to work on behalf of creditors.
The uncertainty of Moo & Oink’s future means Austin residents may have to travel farther outside their community to buy food staples if the Madison Street store closes. Only a few mainstream grocery stores like Leamington Foods, Food-4-Less and Aldi exist in the area. Walmart recently expanded its operation to sell groceries. Austin is the largest community area, geographically and by population, in the city.
“Many people rely on that store, so there are some people who will have to use additional transportation [to travel] … to get the things they were getting there,” said LaDonna Redmond, a food justice advocate, who first championed greater access to fresh food on the West Side more than 10 years ago.
Redmond, a former Austin Weekly News columnist, now works with the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP), a Minnesota-based agency that advocates for safe and healthy food ecosystems worldwide.
She noted many Austin and Garfield Park residents tend to shop more than one store. Losing the Madison Street store will push residents to travel into Oak Park to shop, taking their tax dollars with them.
“There are a number of ways to shop, and what Austin lacks is choice. People are being robbed of their opportunity to choose where they want to shop,” Redmond said.
The loss of Moo & Oink could also expand “food desert” areas, including Austin, said researcher Mari Gallagher, who has penned several studies linking the lack of grocery stores to poor health.
The Austin store is located just outside an area that has been declared a food desert, a term that describes an area that has no or distant mainstream grocery stores to support a healthy daily diet.
Gallagher noted that parts of Austin have become a food oasis, due to an increase in full-service grocery stores opening in Austin. But the closing of Moo & Oink could erode that, Gallagher said. Over the last five years people living in food deserts decreased by 39 percent.
Without access to healthy food options, people increase their chances of hypertension, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer and rates of adult and childhood obesity. Food deserts are mostly located in predominately black communities. And of the nearly 400,000 city residents living in food deserts, more than 100,000 of them are children.
“People cannot choose healthy food if they don’t have access to it,” Gallagher said. “Over time you do see a negative health impact.”
Redmond however contends that access to full-service grocery stores doesn’t guarantee people’s eating habits will change. She said studies from the University of North Carolina and IATP found that proximity to a supermarket does not increase a person’s consumption of healthy foods – just the opposite. The proximity to fast foods increases the likelihood of consuming fast foods, especially for those lacking transportation, she said.
“The study looked at people from the age of 18 to 30, so you are talking about relatively young people,” Redmond said. “A young man, 19 years old, hungry is not going to the supermarket to buy his food. He is going to take his $5 to McDonalds.”
Many people mistakenly make supermarkets the “silver bullet” to change food access in urban areas, Redmond said. But she added what’s really needed is a rebuilt system that focuses on locally grown products through urban agriculture or farmers markets.
“There should be a plethora of choice as far as how to spend one’s dollars and how to best feed oneself,” she said. “Really focusing on supermarkets is missing the mark.”
Moo & Oink’s downfall could be a symptom of a larger trend in the grocery industry – consolidation. Grocery store chains gobble up other stores to achieve economies of scale, increasing their purchasing power and driving down prices. SuperValu operates Jewel-Osco and Save-a-Lot – stores in the Chicago market.
Mom-and-pop stores like Moo & Oink have “fallen victim to a system that squeezes out small businesses and substitutes them with things like Walmart,” Redmond said. “Walmart is the largest retailer in the country, and you can’t beat them on price. Walmart can sell toilet paper cheaper than anybody can do it.”
A rise in food prices may have compounded Moo & Oink’s troubles, Redmond contends. She noted food prices have gone up 30 percent, an increase Moo & Oink probably could not absorb, whereas larger grocery retail chains can spread out that cost.
“When it comes to the cost of buying food, people are looking for the cheapest food they can buy,” Redmond said, noting that people will go to Walmart looking for that value and usually end up buying other items they might have bought at Moo & Oink.
When reached at Moo & Oink’s corporate office for comment on the company’s future, Al Samsky of Silverman Consulting, said he had “no comment at this time.” But Alfonso Espinosa, who works at the Madison Street location, said that the store is open for business
“We are here, open and working hard to serve the customers. This is a great company to work for,” Espinosa said