After their neighborhood became a food desert, disabled residents are fighting back

Bellingham's Birchwood neighborhood lost its grocery store nearly four years ago. For some locals, that means spending extra time and money that they might not have.

Gina gets help with her wheelchair

Gina Magee, 62, of Bellingham, arrives home with her groceries with the help of her caregiver Tammy on May 13, 2019. Magee was completely dependent on a caregiver to grocery shop. She used to be able to ride her motorized wheelchair to the Birchwood neighborhood Albertsons to shop for herself, but since it closed three years ago, there is no longer a grocery store close enough. "They took my independence," Magee said. 

Gina Magee was used to naysayers. It’s why she was so good at handling them.

On the first Thursday in May of last year, she handed out flyers with the Birchwood Food Desert Fighters (BFDF) in a mostly empty parking lot. Behind her was a boarded-up building that used to be an Albertsons. It cast a shadow over her head and the dozen other protesters who’d shown up to rally with her that afternoon.

At the time of the protest, it’d been three years since Albertsons left Magee’s Bellingham neighborhood of Birchwood (nearly four years by the time of this story’s publication). It’s been that long since residents have had a neighborhood grocery store, and a non-compete clause on the building Albertsons still owns makes it impossible for a replacement to move in. 

People picking up pizza from a neighboring Little Caesar’s drove by the protesters slowly, some rolling down their windows to ask about their signs or chants. Magee rolled over in her wheelchair to explain. She handed them a flyer, waved goodbye, and smiled back at the others in the group: “We’ve got a convert in there.”

One man walking through the parking lot approached Tina McKim, one of the group’s lead organizers, who sat in a wheelchair with a stack of flyers on her lap — she has multiple sclerosis and uses a variety of tools to assist in walking. When he asked why they weren’t in a more public spot, McKim told him that they’d chosen to stand in front of this building for the third anniversary of the grocery store’s departure. 

“I fail to see why you’re here in this spot — there’s nobody, ” he said. He gestured toward her wheelchair. After all, he added, “Isn’t there another grocery store nearby?” He told her that he was able to bike to it easily enough.

“A bike is different,” McKim responded.   

The conversation grew heated. The group of protesters behind them exchanged looks.

Magee had heard his brand of skepticism before. Ever since she first needed a wheelchair a decade ago due to chronic pain from injuries sustained in part from past cancer and domestic violence, Magee learned that the process of getting groceries, like so many other things in life, created new challenges. She’d protested in front of the Albertsons three times already and on the curb close to the building, their usual spot, dozens more times.

Initially when she moved to her apartment at Birchwood Manor, a home for low-income seniors with disabilities located on the same block as the old Albertsons, she was excited about upgrading from an apartment she nicknamed the “cockroach capital.” Groceries around the corner gave her autonomy and stability.  

“I could go back and forth with just one charge in my chair,” she said. 

But since Albertsons left, the closest grocery store is a mile away from Birchwood Manor — far enough that she relies on her caretaker to get food, sapping her of her original independence.

Gina Magee was diagnosed with bone cancer 10 years ago, she had chronic pain from experiencing domestic violence, and she had a stroke and a heart attack. She spent most of her days in her Birchwood Manor apartment resting, and was visited by a caregiver four days per week to help with housework, cooking, and errands. Magee said that a lot of her neighbors in Birchwood Manor depended on the close proximity to a grocery store. "So many people are disabled at Birchwood Manor and when Albertsons closed, it really hurt us," she said.

Shortly after Albertsons left, she joined the Birchwood Food Desert Fighters, founded nearly four years ago, in hopes of getting others to understand her issue and bring back a grocery store. For Magee and residents of the 37 other units in the apartment complex, accessibility was integral to whatever solution lay ahead. 

At the rally, Magee chuckled to herself after the combative man left. She gave McKim a knowing look before noticing another car slowing down. She glided between the two, handing the person in the car’s passenger seat a flyer and, as she retreated back to the lineup of protesters, laughed and told McKim, “If he knows so much, why doesn’t he get involved?”

Birchwood is an urban “food desert,” which the U.S. Department of Agriculture calls an area more than a mile away from a grocery store. The closest grocery store to Birchwood Manor is a Haggen and then, slightly farther out, a WinCo. Both are just slightly over a mile away.

Both are barely within the federal qualifications, and within a few minutes’ drive of Gina’s apartment. Those facts diminish the problem to outsiders, and it’s made it particularly hard for the BFDF to get residents of the larger Bellingham area on board with their call for a new grocery store.

But those numbers alone don’t tell Birchwood’s story, and calling an area a “food desert” doesn’t always explain what that means for the people within a community. For those who don’t own cars or can’t drive, like some Birchwood Manor residents, a bus ride to the closest store adds the burden of extra cost and time when they might have little to spare. McKim says “food desert” is a “weird term” that suggests a problem without adding much context; the group has considered changing its name, but keeps “food desert” in it since the term is familiar to most. 

Residents of the building learned to cope with the grocery store’s absence by carpooling and depending on caretakers. The BFDF hosts meetings in the building’s gathering space and occasionally delivers fresh groceries to the building’s residents, too. But it’s not a perfect system: Depending on caretakers and outside forces creates another level of preparation and dependence that Magee didn’t need before.

Gina Magee grocery shops with her caregiver Tammy at WinCo Foods. Though the grocery store is about a mile away from her home, it was too far for her to take her motorized wheelchair and be able to shop by herself.

“I would go over there all the time to get stuff for dinner when I had nobody here,” she said. “ I can’t do that anymore. No one can.”

While there’s sparse data on how disability impacts food access, research shows that people with disabilities are at a higher risk of being “food-insecure,” regardless of age or income. 

“There’s a lot we don’t know,” says Alisha Coleman-Jensen, a USDA analyst who focuses on food insecurity. “There’s a lot of variation within those broad categories.”

“Disability” is a broad term covering a variety of conditions, from physical disabilities like blindness or deafness to mental-health issues. In Magee’s case, and for many in Birchwood Manor, the primary hurdle is physical. Magee said she was unable to stand longer than a few minutes at a time. Her caretaker aided her a few times a week, helping her organize her home and get groceries.

Then-Bellingham councilmember April Barker says that the Albertsons, which had been in the neighborhood since the ’60s, also influenced a host of systems around it and impacted people far beyond Birchwood. 

One of the first changes on the Bellingham council’s docket when the Albertsons left was an update to bus routes that had once been structured to direct people to the store as an affordable, easy means of transit to food. Residents on the nearby Lummi Reservation had also come to depend on the Albertsons for groceries.

Gina Magee rallies with the Birchwood Food Desert Fighters at the former site of Albertson’s on May 7, 2019. The group’s goal is to demand that a grocery store move back in to the Birchwood neighborhood.

“Major bus stops that have been there for decades, that are purposeful to bringing people to food, all that needed to get restructured,” Barker says. Bus routes were changed as a result, but Barker knew that still left the community without a grocery store and the social space it had once created.  

“It’s just a total domino effect,” Barker says. “It was the watering hole of the community.” 

Most of Magee’s weekly social interactions included time with her caretaker or dinners with her best friend, Judy, who also lived in Birchwood Manor. Grocery shopping gave her a world outside her apartment.

“I enjoyed riding over to the Albertsons on my chair,” she said. “Got me out. Got things done.”

The BFDF have tried for years to bring a grocery store to the shopping center in the Albertsons stead, but a non-compete clause on the building that the Albertsons created in 1982 states no other supermarket can occupy the space until 2042. Last year, in the summer after the protest, a Big Lots that had been located in another building in the shopping center took up residence in the old Albertsons building, but that clause prevents it from offering any more food than they already do, mostly snacks and basics. The clause also impacts the building the Big Lots moved out of next to the Albertsons, so the problem persists.

The whole mess of clauses was difficult for BDFD group members to understand at first, but they’ve worked diligently to figure out if another grocery store could challenge the clause. 

In short: Maybe. McKim says that Bellingham city attorneys told the group that the vacated Big Lots building’s clause might have an easier time being challenged in court. Even so, no grocer has shown sustained interest in the building. Some are warded off by the clause and its complications, but McKim hopes that the BFDF can appeal to grocers by showcasing the neighborhood’s need.

“In the meantime, we’re trying to create interim strategies to meet immediate food needs,” McKim says. “And also to create ways to meet food needs long-term in case another corporate grocery goes in, just so the neighborhood doesn’t get screwed again by corporate greed.”

Gina Magee moves from her wheelchair to her caregiver's car to go to the grocery store. 

Magee’s desire for a working food system in the neighborhood was simple: Get a grocery store and make it somewhere she could go on her own. She’d look with envy at other neighborhoods in Bellingham that had grocery stores to depend on. 

“The way I look at it, they’ve got food on their plates, and they’re able to get to the store,” she said. “And where am I [in that]?”

Magee never got to realize this vision with the BFDF. She passed away last autumn after a fall in her apartment. Her passing shocked McKim when she found out; often, the two were the only members of the BFDF in wheelchairs. When they were together, McKim says she felt proud despite her disability, unashamed to be loud about their vision for the neighborhood.

“Sometimes we’d both be in our wheelchairs together at events and we’d have this powerful crip presence,” McKim says. “Usually when I’m in my chair, I’m the only one — but if there’s two or more, there’s a real power in that.”

The vision lives on with the members of the group. On the BFDF’s Facebook page, neighborhood residents share ideas for what a new food system in their neighborhood could look like: They could distribute food themselves, create meeting places and maybe even start a co-op.

Sometimes we’d both be in our wheelchairs together at events and we’d have this powerful crip presence.

“[We have ideas for] a lot of meal-sharing, a lot of food-growing, and continual empowerment of the community,” McKim says. “This is your neighborhood and you get to eat — you deserve to eat! You deserve to have dignified, culturally appropriate access to food. We’re going to build it regardless of corporate activity.” 

In the years since the Albertsons left, they’ve adapted: The group hosts six food boxes around the neighborhood, wooden containers the group keeps stocked for residents to pick up vegetables like squash. They’ve also kept a community garden within Birchwood and recently partnered with six different gardening sites around the neighborhood to expand their gardening space. 

Before leaving for the store, Gina Magee's caregiver Tammy checks the refrigerator, freezer, and pantry and makes a grocery list of what is needed. 

Perhaps one of the group’s biggest victories in moving the Bellingham city council forward was the passage of an ordinance last December that bans non-compete clauses on grocery stores. While it’s not retroactive and therefore won’t apply to the old Albertsons building, it at least will keep this situation from happening again. Barker says she’s unaware of other ordinances like it in the state. 

The group’s persistence made that happen, Barker says. Bellingham City councilmembers were initially skeptical of the need to ban clauses like the one that kept Albertsons’ hold on Birchwood, but the BFDF kept showing up at council meetings, made their case and offered solutions. 

“The Food Desert Fighters had a huge play in this,” Barker says. “They just would not concede.”

Magee embodied that tenacity. Members say she always fought for what she believed in. A few days after her encounter with the man at the rally, she remained unbothered by his criticisms, and felt emboldened by their progress.

“He kept saying it wasn't going to work, it wasn't going to work — well, we got the attention of the town council,” she said. “We’ve been trying to fight real hard. We’re doing everything we need to do.”

When Albertsons closed three years ago, a non-compete clause was put in place to prevent other grocery stores from moving into that shopping center. Gina Magee joined the Birchwood Food Desert Fighters to demand that a grocery store move back into the Birchwood neighborhood. "It is just hard," she said. "This is hard on everybody."

The support provided for this series was arranged by an internal department separate from the Crosscut editorial team, and therefore presented no influence with the information presented in the stories. Find more information on Crosscut's policy on editorial independence here.

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About the Authors & Contributors

Manola Secaira

Manola Secaira

Manola Secaira is formerly a reporter for Crosscut, where she covered Native communities, the changing region and environmental justice.

Dorothy Edwards

Dorothy Edwards

Dorothy Edwards is formerly an associate photo editor at Crosscut.