A key panel approved a proposal Thursday that would allow the city to buy a closed West Garfield Park grocery store, a move that would support community-led efforts to bring another grocer to the space.

Community leaders appealed to city leaders for help after the Aldi at 3835 W. Madison St. closed abruptly in October, worsening the severe scarcity of healthy food in West Garfield Park, which is considered to be a dire food desert.

The Garfield Park Rite to Wellness Collaborative organized a campaign demanding Aldi sell the vacant building to the community for $1 so it can be redeveloped into a supermarket with a mission and values that align with the needs of residents.

The city plan, approved unanimously by the Community Development Commission Thursday, authorizes the city to buy the building if negotiations between neighborhood groups and Aldi fall through, planning department spokesperson Peter Strazzabosco said. The building is listed for $700,000.

The plan is scheduled for a City Council vote in January.

Bringing healthy food options to West Garfield Park has long been a top priority for residents, said TJ Crawford, director of the Rite to Wellness Collaborative. The support from the city is a “demonstration of what it looks like to have community-led initiatives in cooperation with public officials,” he said.

“We are that much closer to getting a community committed grocer,” Crawford said.

If the planning department gets City Council’s blessing to buy the former grocery building, it will give the city “a seat at the table” in negotiating with Aldi as the chain prepares to sell the building or find a new tenant, Strazzabosco said.

“I want there to be a bona fide, qualified grocer at this location. … If Aldi wants to participate, that’s fine. But we need to make that a reality. Whatever is going to get us to that point is what we want to go forward with,” said Ald. Jason Ervin (28th).

The lack of fresh food in the neighborhood contributes to the massive health disparities West Garfield Park residents face, Crawford said.

Aldi is still not being held accountable. There has been no recompense to their actions so far. We need to ensure that they will carry the harm that was done and ensure they don’t do it to other communities.

tj crawford, director of the rite to wellness collaborative

West Garfield Park residents have an average life expectancy 16 years shorter than people living Downtown, according to a 2015 Virginia Commonwealth University report. That gap isn’t due to shortcomings in clinical care alone, the study showed: It is also due to social conditions, including disinvestment, segregation and a lack of grocery stores.

The Rite to Wellness Collaborative campaign is about more than transforming the former Aldi location back into a grocery store, Crawford said. It is equally focused on raising the standard for what kinds of businesses are welcomed into the community and taking a stand against companies that value “profits over people,” he said.

“Aldi is still not being held accountable,” Crawford said. “There has been no recompense to their actions so far. We need to ensure that they will carry the harm that was done and ensure they don’t do it to other communities.”

The sudden closure is concerning since the Aldi was a lifeline for many older people who lived at one of the four senior centers within a block of the supermarket, residents said.

The closure of the store was particularly harmful because Aldi gave neighbors who relied on them little to no notice before suddenly pulling out of the neighborhood, which “created a food desert,” Crawford said.

A spokesperson for Aldi said in a statement the store was closed due to long-term declining sales. But if Aldi had worked with local groups to open a dialogue about the struggling performance, the neighborhood could have worked together to find solutions to keep the store open, Crawford said.

The Rite to Wellness Collaborative organized a series of food giveaways at the site of the former Aldi to support those who have been left without options by the closure. The final giveaway is planned for 9:30 a.m.-noon Dec. 18 at 3835 W. Madison St.

“I don’t want Aldi to do this to another community like they did to Garfield Park. But ultimately, the consumer has to decide not to put their money in places that will treat them bad,” Ervin said.

CONTACT: pascal@blockclubchi.org