One of three grocery stores on the University’s dining plan and the only supermarket within walking distance of the Mount Vernon Campus will close at the end of the academic year.
Safeway on MacArthur Boulevard – a roughly 10-minute walk from the Vern – is expected to close May 4, store managers said. More than 20 students said in interviews that they frequently shop at Safeway and now fear that losing the resource will exacerbate food insecurity on the campus by cutting one of their only affordable and easily accessible food sources.
“It most definitely, at least in the short term, will pose a major challenge to food insecurity just because you’re looking at pretty much the primary grocery store on the Vern closing,” sophomore Tyler Kusma, a resident adviser in West Hall and the Student Association’s director of Mount Vernon affairs, said.
Kusma said he is currently working with administrators through his position on the SA to explore new options to provide Vern residents with access to affordable groceries. He said “everything is currently on the table,” including providing shuttle services to the Georgetown Safeway, which also accepts GWorld, or opening a GW-sponsored grocery store on the Vern.
University spokeswoman Maralee Csellar said officials have begun discussing ways to “enhance” dining options since hearing about the impending closure of the store. She said the other dining options on and near the Vern that accept GWorld offer a “variety of food options” for students, but officials are working to recruit new GWorld vendors and improve the dining program.
“Providing access to grocery items remains an important component of GW’s overall dining program and provides students opportunities to prepare meals in their kitchens and community rooms to enhance their campus living experience and engage with other students,” Csellar said in an email.
She said officials will “continue to consider concepts for providing grocery items and supplies to the campus” and will also involve student leaders in discussions about dining.
Beth Goldberg, the senior manager of community and public affairs for Safeway’s east division, said the store entered into a ground lease agreement – a commitment turning over the property rights – with Trammell Crow Company, a property management service, on Friday.
“Closing a store is always a tough decision, but we sometimes have to make those decisions so we can invest appropriately in other areas of our business,” she said in an email.
Eric Fischer, the managing director at Trammell Crow Company, said the business has not yet decided what will open in place of the supermarket.
“We’re roughly 60 to 90 days away from engaging with our community stakeholders on thoughts for the site and future plans,” he said in an email.
There are about five dining options on the Vern aside from Safeway, and CVS is the only other grocery option, according to the GW Dining website. The Vern’s dining hall, Pelham Commons, offers an all-you-can-eat dining option, but students have said the dining hall is expensive and is not open enough hours a day for Vern residents to rely on it for all meals.
“They should put another dining hall on the Vern, or they should make the dining hall 24/7,” Elisa Peralta, a freshman living in Somers Hall, said. “It should be much more accessible to students because that’s literally the only way you can get food around here.”
Izzy Moody, the SA’s vice president for sustainability and a member of the food experience task force, said Safeway’s closure should show administrators that the Vern “urgently requires special attention with regards to the issues of food insecurity, dining affordability and culturally appropriate food.” Moody was part of a team of students that compiled a list of recommendations to improve dining services at GW this week.
“This closure also has the potential to impact GW’s Foggy Bottom Campus community as well, as the University so often points to Safeway as students’ primary affordable grocery option,” she said in an email.
Food insecurity has surged to the top of student advocacy efforts over the past several years as students have grappled with affordability concerns. The University closed its only dining hall on the Foggy Bottom Campus in 2016 and shifted to an “open” dining plan, allowing students to spend dining dollars at local vendors – but students have said the local restaurants come with a hefty price tag that not all students can afford.
Officials have increased the amount of dining dollars allocated in meal plans every year since.
Freshman Steffi Johnson, a Somers Hall resident, said she shops at Safeway once a week for groceries that are not as “expensive” as those from Whole Foods on the Foggy Bottom Campus. Johnson said students struggling with food insecurity who rely on Safeway for cheap groceries will have no choice but to shop at Safeway in Georgetown – about a 30-minute walk from either campus – or Whole Foods.
“I am personally not experiencing as much of the rampant food insecurity as a lot of students are, so I can’t imagine how it affects the people who are already trying to budget and this being the only affordable close option,” she said.
Chris Zuniga, a freshman living in West Hall, said Safeway is the only GWorld vendor he shops at because he uses the groceries to cook three meals a day, which he has been doing for the past two years. He said Safeway’s closure could lead to a “lifestyle change” for him since he will have no accessible grocery options on the meal plan.
“I wanted really badly to live on the Vern next year, which is a very minority opinion, but the fact that Safeway is going away might just be a game-changer,” Zuniga said.
He said officials should extend dining hours at Pelham Commons and push for a new grocery store near the Vern after the closure.
“I don’t know what kind of hand GW has in the business that goes on around here, but if there’s any way for them to get a new vendor or if they can influence some kind of company to take Safeway’s spot from which we can buy groceries, I think that would be ideal,” Zuniga said.
Grady McPeak, a freshman living in West Hall, said he relies on Safeway as his primary source for food on campus because Pelham’s prices are “not sustainable” to eat at more than once a day. He said he fears that the Vern will quickly become the “new heart of the food insecurity problem” on campus if a new grocery store does not open.
“We just sort of rely on the communities around us to provide for us, and so would anyone living anywhere, but what are we supposed to do when those communities don’t support us anymore?” McPeak said. “I don’t know.”
Samantha Serafin contributed reporting.
This article appeared in the April 11, 2019 issue of the Hatchet.