Why San Francisco is considering a bill that would let shoppers sue closing grocery stores

The Neighborhood Grocery Protection Act was considered once before in 1984

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Food Editor

Published April 17, 2024 12:30PM (EDT)

Empty shopping cart in front of a red wall (Getty Images/Christian Adams)
Empty shopping cart in front of a red wall (Getty Images/Christian Adams)

In 1984, the managers of a Safeway supermarket located at Bush and Larkin Streets in San Francisco announced the abrupt closure of the store; they would be permanently shuttering within the week, leaving community members with few choices for places to get fresh groceries. In response, the city’s Board of Supervisors passed the Neighborhood Grocery Protection Act, a law that would require grocery stores to provide six-months advance notice — and a promise to engage in good-faith negotiations with community members — before closing. 

However, then-Mayor Dianne Feinstein quickly vetoed the law and it was largely forgotten, until now. 

Four decades on, an eerily similar situation is playing out in San Francisco. In January, another Safeway — this time at Webster and Ellis, in a historically Black area that serves many senior citizens — announced they would be closing. This prompted both protests from community members and for two city supervisors, Dean Preston and Aaron Peskin, to reintroduce the Neighborhood Grocery Protection Act.

“It was a good idea in 1984, and it’s an even better idea now,” Preston said in a statement. “Our communities need notice, an opportunity to be heard, and a transition plan when major neighborhood grocery stores plan to shut their doors. Meeting the food security needs of our seniors and families cannot be left to unilateral backroom decisions by massive corporate entities.”

The proposal comes as San Francisco has experienced an exodus of both residents and large companies. According to a 2023 CNN report, since the pandemic, nearly 40 retail stores have closed in Union Square, a major commercial hub in the heart of San Francisco’s downtown, with dozens more closing in surrounding areas. The reason for the mass departure is multifaceted, with experts pointing to a mix of sluggish tourism traffic, rising crime rates and less need for commercial real estate during an era of remote work. 

However, San Francisco isn’t the only city struggling with the question of how to ensure its most vulnerable residents have and maintain access to community groceries — and if the Neighborhood Grocery Protection Act passes, it would set an interesting precedent in the national fight against food insecurity. 

The newly-proposed bill in San Francisco begins by classifying supermarkets as being essential to the vitality of a community and, as such, “the closure of a supermarket can have widespread effects on a community’s well being by reducing access to food and creating food insecurity. 

“Supermarket closures can have an especially dire impact on senior citizens, people with disabilities and people who lack the means to travel by car or public transportation to supermarkets outside the neighborhood,” the ordinance says. “To safeguard the interests of workers, including the employees of some supermarkets, federal and state laws require large businesses to notify their employees of their intent to close or transfer ownership of the business.” 

We need your help to stay independent

The ordinance acknowledges that the Board of Supervisors recognizes a supermarket may conclude that it is to its economic advantage to close when it is no longer profitable to stay in operation. 

“This Article 57 does not preclude the owner from making such a decision,” the ordinance authors write. “Nevertheless, given the life-sustaining services a supermarket provides to residents in the neighborhood, and the important role it plays in strengthening and stabilizing the community it serves, an owner has a responsibility as an integral part of that community to undertake a reasonable effort to work with neighborhood residents and the City to explore opportunities to remain open for business, or to identify a replacement supermarket.” 

They continue: “Through this Article 57, the City seeks to leverage community and City resources to ensure that neighborhoods are not left devoid of supermarkets and residents are not left without access to supermarkets; that supermarkets continue to serve the community even when there is the possibility of a supermarket closure.” 

"The City seeks to leverage community and City resources to ensure that neighborhoods are not left devoid of supermarkets and residents are not left without access to supermarkets."

According to the bill, affected individuals can initiate a lawsuit if a grocery store fails to comply with the closure notice requirements. The course of action could range from seeking damages and injunctive relief to declaratory relief or a writ of mandate to fix the violation.In a statement regarding his decision to help revive the Neighborhood Grocery Protection Act, Supervisor Preston said that the abrupt closure of a neighborhood-serving store is no less harmful than it was 40 years ago. 

“Food insecurity is on the rise, especially for seniors and families, as food prices skyrocket and food programs face major cuts,” he said. “We need to be doing everything in our power to maintain access to groceries in our neighborhoods.”

San Francisco’s decision to consider this ordinance comes at a crucial time for the grocery industry in the United States. Currently, Albertsons and Kroger, the two biggest supermarket chains in the country, are fighting to merge, a move that some experts fear might lead to higher prices for shoppers, many of whom are already reporting anxiety about food inflation. Simultaneously, cities across the United States are grappling with how dollar stores have swarmed their urban centers, often pushing out the remaining large-scale grocers and exacerbating food deserts. 

For many of these communities, when a supermarket leaves, it’s not just inconvenient — it’s a staggering loss. Whether the Neighborhood Grocery Protection Act will dissuade future departures remains to be seen. The ordinance was introduced by Preston and Peskin last week and, in San Francisco, legislation that creates or revises major City policy shall not be considered until at least 30 days after the day of introduction. 

In the meantime, however, the Safeway that was planning on closing in the city has agreed to keep their store open until at least January 2025. 

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is Salon's food editor. She is also an award-winning radio producer, editor and features writer — with a special emphasis on food, culture and subculture. Her writing has appeared in and on The Atlantic, National Geographic’s “The Plate,” Eater, VICE, Slate, Salon, The Bitter Southerner and Chicago Magazine, while her audio work has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered and Here & Now, as well as APM’s Marketplace. She is based in Chicago.

MORE FROM Ashlie D. Stevens

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Explainer Kroger Neighborhood Grocery Protection Act Safeway Supermarket