Whatcom View: Grocery stores are vital entities in Bellingham neighborhoods

Bellingham consistently ranks high on the list of desirable locations to retire. The environment is beautiful, the city is well managed, the public transportation is good, and the roadways are both bike and pedestrian friendly. Neighborhood grocery stores, sprinkled about the city, are an integral part of Bellingham’s character.

Neighborhood grocery stores provide their customers with far more than a place to buy food. The store itself is a place of incidental socialization with friends and neighbors; a conduit for drives from Girl Scouts cookies to meals-on-wheels. Neighborhood grocery stores are rooted in Bellingham neighborhoods. Closing a neighborhood grocery store can have a significant negative impact on the surrounding residents.

Ensuring that grocery stores are within walking distance (up to 1 mile) for our citizens supports the vitality of that neighborhood. A recent Seattle study showed that the trend is toward people making an average of two trips to the grocery store per week.

Neighborhood grocery stores support a healthier environment where people can socialize, walk to their grocery store and get good fresh nutrition.

While on faculty at the University of Georgia, in Athens, I conducted research into the quality of life and functional ability of older adults living in public housing. Poor nutrition, social isolation and physical inactivity are three factors contributing to lower quality of life for low-income seniors. Poor access to groceries was one of the biggest barriers to good nutrition for the public housing residents.

Big-box competition

As in many cities, grocery stores in commercial mixed-use neighborhoods went out of business, in large part, because of competition from big-box stores. Big-box stores, located in large shopping areas beyond the city limits, were outside the frequent public transportation routes. Lacking a car, most residents of public housing were forced to shop at a “stop-and-go” type convenience store that sold little or no fresh produce. The area around the public housing tower effectively became a food desert, putting residents at higher risk of diabetes, obesity and the multiple diseases that accompany poor nutrition.

Because of my previous research, I was delighted to see the Haggen’s Fairhaven store directly across from the Chuckanut Square public housing complex, where residents can do their banking, shop for groceries and enjoy a deli meal. This grocery store is essential for the independence and well-being of the residents of Chuckanut Square. Since the Market at Old Fairhaven Parkway and I-5 has closed within the past five years, closure of Haggen’s Fairhaven market would mean an additional three miles one way for the Fairhaven and the Chuckanut Drive neighborhoods to get to a full grocery store. For the two-wage earner families that are too busy to travel an extra 15-30 minutes, shop, and then prepare meals at home, this is a significant life disruption.

Walking distance

Urban planning trends are toward building neighborhood grocery stores within walking distance of mixed-use and residential neighborhoods. Wal-Mart is rethinking its grocery stores model as it moves into urban areas, as reported on NPR in April 2015.

This trend bodes well for age-friendly communities where smaller household residents chose to shop more frequently. As a member of the leadership council of Bellingham at Home, I am actively engaged in the Bellingham community to facilitate aging-in-place strategies and in doing so I am advocating for neighborhood grocery stores.

Neighborhood grocery stores support a healthier environment where people can socialize, walk to their grocery store and get good fresh nutrition. If Haggen’s five core Bellingham grocery stores are auctioned off, it is my hope that full grocery stores will be retained in each of these locations to maintain Bellingham’s vital and intergenerational neighborhoods.

M. Elaine Cress, PhD is a University of Georgia professor emeritus in Kinesiology and Gerontology. She is one of the Founding Members of Bellingham at Home and serves on their leadership council. Bellingham at Home is a program of the Whatcom Council on Aging. For more information online, go to wccoa.org/index.php/BellinghamatHome.