Some West Side residents said they feel abandoned after a discount supermarket chain announced it would close a store serving North Austin, cutting off a primary option for fresh food in the area.
Save A Lot, 5555 W. North Ave., is set to close permanently last weekend.
The move has left regular shoppers scrambling and frustrated West Side elected officials, who said the company could have sought their help to keep the location open.
Resident Linda Toles said the shelves have already been cleared out.
“We’re already a food desert. So they’re going to close one of the stores? Their prices are lower than the other stores. So I don’t know why they’re closing,” Toles said.
Like much of the West Side, some parts of Austin are considered to be a food desert, where residents must travel miles to reach healthy, affordable food. A lack of healthy options is considered to be among the social conditions driving chronic health disparities that shorten the average life expectancy for Black Chicagoans by almost nine years compared to white residents.
There is a Food-4-Less a mile west on North Avenue, an Aldi in neighboring Belmont Cragin and several supermarkets in the surrounding affluent suburbs. But the closure will force many residents to leave their immediate neighborhood to get food, which will be especially hard for families for families without a car who relied on the convenient location of the Save A Lot, Toles said.
“It’s going to be rough,” Toles said. “And it’s on a main street where people can get there … they got bus stops right there.”
Resident Maretta Brown-Miller frequents the Save A Lot to pick up groceries in between bigger shopping trips to her preferred supermarket farther away. She worries the closure will most significantly impact seniors in the neighborhood, who benefitted from having a store within walking distance.
“You have to understand that some people don’t have vehicles. And then the older people, it’s just a little walk,” Brown-Miller said.
Austin is one of the most populated neighborhoods in Chicago, with nearly 100,000 residents — that’s more than enough people in need of food “to sustain a grocery store,” Brown-Miller said.
Save A Lot spokeswoman Sarah Griffin did not give any explanation for why the chain closed its Austin location. She said the company “regularly [reviews] our stores on a number of factors.”
Local elected officials also are criticizing the company for closing a store in the middle of a pandemic that has hit area residents disproportionately hard.
During the George Floyd protests over the summer, State Rep. La Shawn Ford saw just how impactful the loss of a food resource can be when several local supermarkets shut down temporarily after being looted.
“It’s definitely going to be very difficult for folks who don’t have access to transportation,” Ford said.
The closing supermarket is indicative of a larger problem with national chains profiting from Black communities, but showing no loyalty to residents when times get tough, Ford said.
“The commitment to the people in Austin has gone away. It starts with someone coming in and having a commitment to the community. We see that is not the case when you have a place like Save A Lot close down,” he said.
Ford recommends Chicagoans support small, local businesses “that care about the neighborhood” rather than national chains.
The state has dedicated resources for helping struggling businesses in communities in dire need, and could have explored offering public money to help keep the Save A Lot open, Ford said. But Save A Lot’s leadership never contacted Ford to seek assistance from the state government, he said.
“I believe the state could help. I believe the city could help,” Ford said. “If they really cared about the community, they would have had a community meeting to say, here’s what we need.”
Ald. Emma Mitts (37th) also lamented that the grocery chain, which owns 1,300 stores across 36 states, never made any effort to reach out to her.
“I’ve attempted to arrange meetings with their store management team to explore possible intervention options, but as of today, have received little response,” Mitts said. “The last thing we need now is to lose a local grocery serving areas already challenged as food deserts right before the holidays.”
Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago.