D.C. Council member Vincent C. Gray emerged from a meeting with Safeway executives at city hall and said Thursday that he could not assure his constituents that the supermarket would improve service at the two stores it operates on Washington’s eastern edge.
Safeway officials requested the meeting after Gray (D-Ward 7) invited news organizations to accompany him last week on an unannounced inspection of the supermarkets, where he found mold on produce, brown meat and long lines.
Residents of Ward 7 have long complained about poor conditions at the stores, located at the East River Park Shopping Center and at the corner of Alabama Avenue and Good Hope Road. They are the only full-service grocery stores in the ward.
After the meeting, which lasted more than an hour, Gray said Safeway executives offered no information to make him believe that the chain would take immediate steps to improve.
“I can’t give the assurances that people would like to have that things will magically change,” Gray said. “There’s a lot of work to be done here.”
Just before Gray spoke to reporters, the Safeway officials with whom he met walked quickly to an elevator to leave city hall.
“It was a very productive meeting,” said Jonathan Mayes, a vice president for the Albertsons Co., Safeway’s parent company. But he would not address specific questions about service and unsanitary conditions.
“We’ll get back to you,” he said.
A recent study found that a preponderance of the District’s supermarkets — about 70 percent — are located in Washington’s most affluent and predominantly white neighborhoods. In contrast, the 160,000 residents of Wards 7 and 8, the African American neighborhoods with the city’s highest concentration of poverty, have three supermarkets, including the two Safeways and a Giant.
Over the years, residents of those wards have expressed anger about poor service at the Safeways and complained about the quality of meat and produce. The paucity of shopping choices is especially onerous because many residents do not own cars.
Gray shops at the Safeway on Good Hope Road, near his home in the Hillcrest neighborhood, one of the ward’s two supermarkets. He first met with supermarket officials in April after hearing his constituents’ complaints. A month later, Safeway officials promised to take action, though officials were not specific.
In a letter to a Safeway executive he sent Tuesday, Gray described as “appalling” his visit to the supermarket’s two Ward 7 locations on Aug. 17. “The shopping experience I witnessed is an insult to the community I represent and an utter failure to make promised changes,” he wrote.
Safeway further angered residents when — without explanation — it reduced hours at its supermarket at the intersection of Benning Road and Minnesota Avenue NE from 6 a.m.-10 p.m. to 7 a.m.-9 p.m.
During the meeting, Gray said, the executives turned down his request that they restore the former schedule.
“They said they couldn’t,” he said, because the supermarket is struggling to make money, though he added that the officials offered no documentation to back up their claim.
In general, the officials said their Ward 7 stores are struggling because of shoplifting and staff turnover, Gray said. The officials sought to assure the council member that they are working to make improvements and address customers’ frustrations, said Janis Hazel, his spokeswoman. No timeline was offered, she said.
They also said that isolated cases of spoiled produce and outdated meat can be found at supermarkets in any neighborhood. The officials told Gray that the negative publicity generated by media coverage of the stores’ conditions could exacerbate their problems.
But Gray expressed no interest in backing off, saying public pressure is a way to push Safeway to improve.