The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) boom-and- bust cycle continued in Woonsocket this month, but not all local grocers benefit to the same degree.
Woonsocket is home to two supermarkets. A Price Rite – which traffics in highly discounted groceries – and a Shaw’s – which is operates a bit more in the middle-class price range – located within a half mile of one another. The only other supermarket options for the 40,000-plus resident of Rhode Island’s forgotten city are a Park and Shop – located just over the state line in Blackstone, Mass. – and two Stop and Shops which straddle the city – One right on the city line in North Smithfield, and another just over the state line in Bellingham, Mass.
The Blackstone Park and Shop and the Bellingham Stop and Shop are off-limits to Woonsocket SNAP recipients; the state-administered, federally-funded benefits don’t travel over state lines.
I decided to take a ride up to the Woonsocket Price Rite location, in an attempt to shed a bit more light on the first-of-the-month melee at local grocery stores. The parking lot was packed with cars, and there was a steady stream of customers entering and exiting the store. More customers waited outside the store for the next bus to come by to take them home with their groceries.
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As I walked through the store, the wide aisles were easy to navigate, but things changed as I approached the checkout lines. The lines stretched into the ends of the grocery aisles. Carriages were packed, overflowing in many cases, and customers were bagging their own groceries on the counter across from the ends of the checkout lines.
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I managed to speak to a pair of ladies who were exiting the store for a bit before store management descended on me and informed me of their store’s policy of “No Solicitation” of store employees or their customers. The women were exiting the store with two carriages absolutely bursting with food. One of the women, who didn’t want to be identified, told me that most of her SNAP benefits, along with a good portion of her disability supplement had been eaten up in this one trip to Price Rite. In total, she had spent over $500 in this one shopping trip.
Not surprisingly, there is a Check n’ Go payday lender less than 100 feet from the doors of the Price Rite, and an Advance America lender less than a 5 minute walk away.
Her disability stems from a hip injury that makes standing or sitting for long periods of time extremely painful. That pretty much rules out any job there is. She also has a four-year old daughter with autism. Her older children help her take care of the youngster, which makes it difficult for them to find full-time work with a flexible enough schedule to continue to help with the care of the disabled girl.
As I drove to the Shaw’s, again less than a half-mile from the Price Rite, and expected to find a similar situation. Instead I was surprised to find a virtually empty parking lot. Aisles and checkout lines were not overly crowded; some completely empty. A quick trip to the North Smithfield Stop and Shop showed a similar situation. Virtually empty lot, empty aisles, and short lines at the checkouts.
Supervalu Inc., the parent company of Shaw’s Supermarkets, is selling off five of its grocery chains, including Shaw’s and Albertson’s, after years of being squeezed by intensifying competition. The Woonsocket Shaw’s may be closed due to decreasing revenue.
Why is a supermarket in a city where one-third of the residents receive SNAP benefits not benefiting from expenditures of those benefits? How do companies like Shaw’s and Stop and Shop – that have many more locations in the region – not offer a price point that would make them competitive with the discount grocer?
Lastly, if – and more likely when – the Woonsocket Shaw’s location closes, the city will be left with only one supermarket. A supermarket that has a stigma amongst the middle-to-upper class remaining in Woonsocket as the “poor peoples market.” My last question is, how long will it be until those folks, by hook or by crook, are forced into shopping there?