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IN THE NEWS: Prince George’s County Bill Would Boost Grocery Stores In Food Deserts

The DCist, Dominique Maria Bonessi, Link Here.

Kyle Reeder, a resident of Capitol Heights, Maryland says the closest grocery store to his neighborhood is the Safeway on Minnesota Avenue in the District’s Ward 7, a few miles away.

He says he’s privileged to have a car, but many neighbors aren’t.

“If you don’t have a car, you have to lug your groceries to and from the bus, walking in conditions where the sidewalks may not be shoveled, crossing highways, and such. It’s not that the most convenient thing, and Ubers add up. And so it can definitely be a pain,” he tells WAMU/DCist while standing at the entrance to the Safeway.

Residents in many of the county’s inner Beltway communities lack access to fresh fruits and vegetables. A little more than 40% of the county’s neighborhoods are considered food deserts, places with low access to food, and unhealthy food accounts for 55% of those communities’ food outlets, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Prince George’s County has been hardest hit in the state by the COVID-19 pandemic due to the high number of co-morbidities like heart disease, diabetes, and hypertension — diseases that could be exacerbated by unhealthy foods with high amounts of saturated fats, salt, and sugar.

The green areas on the map represent areas that are considered food deserts by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

As a manager of the Capitol Heights Metro Farmer’s Market, which was started three summers ago, Reeder says he knows his community is a food swamp, a place where there is access to food, but few fresh fruits and vegetables.

“So we have a lot of McDonald’s and Taco Bell and liquor stores and corner stores that don’t provide the community the things that they need to live healthy, full lives,” Reeder says.

Kyle Reeder says he’s a vegetarian and mostly sticks to buying fresh fruits and vegetables while at the grocery store.Dominique Maria Bonessi / WAMU/DCist

Two controversial bills working their way through Maryland’s General Assembly aim to attract grocery stores to communities like Capitol Heights by allowing them to sell beer and light wine, but could also threaten the areas’ small businesses. Both bills — one a county-wide measure and the other a statewide measure — are expected to make their way to the House floor for a final vote later this month.

Maryland is one of a few states that does not allow the sale of any alcohol in grocery stores — with few exceptions.

The bill includes restrictions: A cap of 15 on the number of new grocery stores with beer and wine sales in Prince George’s, a requirement that each store invest $2.5 million in initial capital, and a 10% limit to the square footage devoted to beer and wine sales. The county would see $2,500 a year from each liquor license.

Delegate Jazz Lewis (D-Prince George’s), with the support of the County Executive Angela Alsobrooks, said the impetus of the bill was a study that found that neighborhoods with the highest density of liquor stores are within the Beltway, and overlap with food desert locations.

“In Prince George’s County the areas that have been hardest hit by the pandemic health-wise are the same places where we have the least access to primary care physicians and general healthcare, but they’re also the same places where we have the least access to healthy food,” Lewis tells WAMU/DCist.

Similar legislation is also being proposed in the District’s Wards 7 and 8. The bill would allow a new grocer to sell beer, wine, and spirits provided they make up no more than 25% of the store’s total sales. Anyone interested in applying for the license would need to operate such a store in those two wards for a minimum of six months before opening a location in any other ward.

Over the past few years, bills to change Maryland and other states’ alcohol laws have faced heavy opposition from the industry and public health experts.

Small Business Impact

During the pandemic, many small businesses in the state have been hurting and some have shuttered. Many have relied on government state loans, some of which later turned into grants, to make ends meet.

“Our government at every level has worked tirelessly to attempt to save small businesses. This bill will work directly against these efforts to save small businesses,” Jim Spiropoulis, the owner of Town Center Market in Riverdale, told a House committee last month.

Spiropoulis’s store sells craft beer, wine, and spirits. It’s been open for more than three decades and employs 20 people, six of whom have benefits. Other local liquor store owners who spoke at a House committee hearing said they’re worried that they would have to shut down or lay off employees if the bill passed.

Lewis has tried to quell some of the liquor store owners’ anxieties by adding provisions to the bill. Parts of the bill would allow liquor store owners to transfer their licenses from a high-density alcohol zone to a low-density alcohol zone in the county. Currently, liquor licenses are locked into the legislative district in which they were originally designated. Another provision would allow for a study after five years to determine if the new grocery stores were located in the right areas.

The map shows the areas of the county with the highest alcohol density.

But, even if liquor store owners approve of the bill, public health experts say it could still do more harm than good.

Public Health Effects

Elyse Grossman, a public health expert from Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health, says the bill has good intentions, but “excessive alcohol consumption is already a public health problem in Maryland especially in impoverished and minority communities.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say that areas with more alcohol outlets are associated with increased violence, obesity, and other adverse health outcomes.

And research on the impact of putting more alcohol outlets in high-density alcohol zones is not conclusive.

Data reporting from The Washington Post compared states that do and do not allow alcohol sales in grocery stores. It concluded that the hidden costs (public health interventions, police costs, and disease) of excessive drinking in states that allow the sale of beer and wine in grocery stores have lower hidden costs than states that don’t allow grocery stores to sell alcohol.

Back at the Safeway on Minnesota Avenue on another Friday trip to the grocery store, Reeder has picked up some broccoli, fresh salsa, and ripe avocados. He says he’s aware of the debate around the legislation and does want to support his local small businesses.

“But if the small businesses that are in our community are only selling liquor and only selling junk food then that’s a problem and I don’t want legislation to support economic development at the expense of the health of my neighbors,” he says.

Before heading to checkout, Reeder is stopped by a man who asks how to cook baby bella mushrooms.

“My doctor says I need to eat healthier,” the man says.

“Oh, well, I sauté them with some olive oil, salt, pepper, oregano…maybe some garlic powder,” Reeder replies as the man places the mushrooms into his cart.

Reeder then checks out of the Safeway with grocery bags in hand, gets back in his car, and makes the drive back to Capitol Heights.

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