WEST GARFIELD PARK — West Side residents rallied at the Aldi headquarters Thursday to demand answers for why the company abruptly closed its grocery store in a neighborhood already struggling with food scarcity.
The Aldi at 3835 W. Madison St. closed early this month, although the exact timing is unclear. According to the Austin Weekly News, chatter about the store closing surfaced around Oct. 9. Two days later, its sign was taken down and workers could be seen clearing out shelves and furniture.
West Garfield Park residents are calling on Aldi to work with the community to ensure another grocery store can take over the now-vacant building. West Garfield Park now has only one other grocery store, a Save-A-Lot at 420 S. Pulaski Road.
“They created a food desert. We’re demanding accountability to the community,” said TJ Crawford, director of the Garfield Park Rite to Wellness Collaborative. “Simultaneously, we want access to fresh and healthy foods for communities that are desperately wanting to dig themselves out of a hole of ill health.”
Garfield Park residents face steep health disparities and have an average life expectancy 16 years shorter than people living Downtown, according to a 2015 Virginia Commonwealth University report.
The disparity isn’t only due to shortcomings in clinical health care; social conditions like the lack of fresh food are major drivers of the so-called “death gap,” said Rachel Smith, a program director for social work and community health at Rush University Medical Center.
“People learn to work around it,” Smith said. “What happens is, you pick the less healthy resource that’s available. It lends to fast food. It lends to the corner store. It lends to these unhealthy options because it’s what you have available. It also impacts that individual’s health and the proliferation of chronic conditions.”
West Garfield Park has one of the biggest patient populations served by Rush, said Julia Bassett, manager of health and community benefit at the hospital. Rush routinely offers community health programs and food distributions in the area, but those services only go so far without multiple grocery stores.
“Food accessibility is a human right. Individuals have a right to be healthy. It should not be based on your ZIP code. It should not be based on your financial status,” Bassett said.
The loss of the Aldi will be especially harmful to neighbors living in the four senior centers within one block of the closed grocery store, said May Henderson, a resident who runs a food distribution program for older people at New Mount Pilgrim Church. Most older people in the area relied on Aldi because it was the only place within walking distance where they could pick up groceries in between food deliveries, Henderson said.
“When that food runs out, where are you supposed to go to get food? It’s a dire situation; it really is,” Henderson said. “We’re talking about seniors. We’re talking about people with disabilities, people who don’t have the mobility to get out to Oak Park to get to a grocery store. … It’s a pandemic within a pandemic, that they shut down the last source of food.”
It is especially egregious that Aldi shut down the store without giving residents notice and without giving local organizations a chance to negotiate solutions to keep the store open, find city support or create alternative food resources, said Marshall Hatch Sr., reverend of New Mount Pilgrim Church.
“It’s devastating,” Hatch said. “Aldi literally left in the dark of the night. No warning, no notice, no conversation or dialogue. It’s pretty stunning for a lot of people who have limited options. … It is the height of corporate irresponsibility to not engage the community at all.”
Other Aldi’s across the city have been remodeled and reopened as part of $1.6 billion nationwide investment. An Aldi spokesperson said the West Garfield Park store was closed due to “consistently declining sales and the fact that we’ve operated this location at a loss for several years.”
“Poor sales performance and increased expenses have simply made it unsustainable to keep the store open. We have been proud to serve the residents of the West Garfield Park neighborhood over the past 30 years, and we thank our customers for their loyalty,” the spokesperson said in a statement.
A coalition of neighborhood organizations — including the Garfield Park Rite to Wellness Campaign, the Garfield Park Community Council and New Mount Pilgrim Church — are trying to ensure the vacant building can become a grocery store again.
The groups are asking Aldi to give the building to the community or sell it at a discounted rate so it can be used to attract a local or more socially conscious grocer, Hatch said. The organizations are working with Ald. Jason Ervin (28th) to convince the city to offer incentives that would attract a grocer to the building, he said.
“We really don’t want them, after reaping all this profit off the community, to sell the building for profit to a non-grocer. We want to make sure that is a grocery store,” Hatch said. “We expect the city to work with us. We expect Aldi to just give the building up.”
This is the second time in less than a year a grocer has pulled out of a West Side food desert with no notice. In December, one of Austin’s only grocery stores, Save-A-Lot, closed suddenly, leaving many residents scrambling to find a new place to find food.
The city as a whole must “set some kind of standard of behavior” and stop supporting corporations that “basically plunder and then walk away with impunity,” Hatch said.
Attracting new grocery options had already been a long-term goal for the Garfield Park Rite to Wellness Collaborative, Crawford said. The group must now hasten those plans and will work over the coming weeks to identify community-focused grocers to support that could fill the void left by Aldi.
“It’s another reminder that we need to be the solutions. No one else is going to do it for us,” Crawford said.
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