By PK Semler, Special to The AFRO 

It seems that unprecedented profits generated by Covid-19, and not union or political activism, have saved the Shoppers Grocery Store in Mondawmin Mall from shutting down and creating a new catastrophic food desert situation for West Baltimore residents.

The future of Shoppers at Mondawmin Mall — which serves two of Baltimore’s economically deprived neighborhoods of Sandtown and Easterwood – has triggered community unrest since the owners, the Providence, Rhode Island-based United Natural Food, Inc (NYSE: UNFI) announced it would close or sell of the store in 2019.

The closure of Shoppers and the shutting down of any other critical supermarket in urban food deserts is an issue that National Action Network president and founder, the Rev. Al Sharpton, said he is determined to bring to national attention in the civil rights organization’s fight for economic justice.

“If it’s true they are , I will deal with it,” he told the AFRO in an interview during the March on Washington on August 28.   

Unprecedented profits from its Shoppers stores during the Covid-19 pandemic that triggered record 2020 sales of $26.4 billion have led UNFI to hold off plans to shut or sell the Shoppers for the time being.

“When we went into the pandemic, we felt morally obligated to the communities in which we trade…that we wouldn’t put those communities through an ownership change because the stores are just so important to the communities,” said outgoing UNFI CEO Steve Spinner.  

“It makes absolutely no sense for them to close the Shoppers. It is a very profitable store that serves as the anchor of the community,” a Shoppers local manager said. “It seems that the executive at United (Natural Foods) have no clue what devastating impact it would have on our community if they shut the store down.”

Leaders of Mondawmin Mall, owned and managed by the Canadian/Brazilian real estate group Brookfield Properties, were also overjoyed by UNFI decision to maintain the Shoppers, its cornerstone tenant. 

“We have deep roots in this community and strive to provide a safe environment for everyone who visits.  Shoppers is an important tenant and a great partner to us and the Greater Mondawmin Community. We work together to serve our community,” said Romaine Smallwood-Faison, general manager of Mondawmin Mall in a written statement to The AFRO. 

North Brentwood Mayor Petrella Robinson said that she has personally witnessed the negative impact that the sale of Shoppers grocery stores has on communities in Prince George’s County.  

The community and workers at Shoppers also failed to have the full support of The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) Local 27 based in suburban Towson. UFCW Local 27 remained empty during Covid-19 crisis while its union members toiled as heroes throughout the worst of the deadly pandemic.  

UFCW union president Marc Perrone and AFL-CIO policy head Damon Silvers declined to issue any statement on the UFCW and AFL-CIO commitment on fighting to ensure that critical supermarkets like Shoppers in the middle of urban food deserts do not get shut down or downsized by their corporate owners.

During the National Action Network Annual Convention on April 21, Rev. Sharpton vowed he will push President Joe Biden and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen among others to take out “lily white” union pension funds, university endowments and asset managers who provide funding to developers that gentrify or harm African-American communities. 

“Representation by the unions also empowers us to get voting rights because it makes sure your members are being serviced and not being used as a political shield to their elected friends,’ Sharpton said.  

Those living in northeast D.C. by Deanwood and East River Park neighborhoods are in an uproar regarding the closing this April of a Safeway supermarket to make way for a mega development by Long Island, New York-based Cedar Realty.

The closure, which will re-create an enormous food desert in the area, forced local Richard Lawson to rally his community to action on the hyperlocal social media Nextdoor platform to save the store from permanent closure.

UFCW spokesperson Jonathan Williams said the UFCW won no guarantees regarding the future of the Shoppers supermarket in Mondawmin and had no knowledge of the closing for the Safeway in northeast DC. 

This article is part of a multi-media series, “Securing the Bag,” focusing on Baltimore’s food deserts and food insecurity, funded by a grant from Solutions Journalism Network.

Sidebar

Lancaster, Pennsylvania proves when a community joins forces with business leaders, church groups and charities they can offset the worst impact to their communities when corporate executives arbitrarily close vital food shopping centers in urban and rural areas.

When Giant Food Stores, the shopping chain owned by Dutch food giant Ahold, shuttered its Giant Food store in one of Lancaster’s poorest neighborhoods — the community, in partnership with Lancaster business leaders, opened a non-for-profit supermarket Treasures Market.

The store run by the founder and former owner of the Amelia Grocery Outlet wholesale food concern, Michael Mitchell, proudly posts on its entrance a price list showing how the discount store consistently beats out Giant.

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