New Haven has long been a city rife with inequities; its (non-Yale) residents currently experience a poverty rate of almost 26 percent, while its food insecurity rate is twice the national average. Scads of research has made the connection between the necessity of food access—namely, easy-to-reach grocery stores—in addressing hunger and healthy food procurement, especially in BIPOC communities. (New Haven’s Black population experiences a poverty rate of over 27 percent, and one in three residents in its lowest-income communities experience food insecurity.) In an attempt to unravel the mystery of her local Stop & Shop, Kang started to research the grocery business. In so doing, she stumbled on some big barriers to that access: restrictive covenants and other insidious tactics used by grocery chains to stifle competitors. And, she learned, it’s consumers who pay the price.

Restrictive covenants are provisions written into deeds and lease agreements that govern how a piece of property can or cannot be used, sometimes indefinitely. Grocery chains have been using them at least since the 1950s as a way to make sure that if they’ve built out a large and costly brick-and-mortar supermarket—a store’s footprint can sprawl for 5,000 square feet or much more—no other supermarket will threaten its profits. As Kang wrote in a paper that she recently delivered at a Yale Law School grocery conference, “It’s self-evident from these restrictions that [grocery companies’] tactic is solely and wholly intended to hinder competition.”

A restrictive covenant might work like this: Stop & Shop, which is owned by Dutch conglomerate Ahold Delhaize, builds a supermarket in a community that needs it. Great news! However, if Stop & Shop eventually decides it no longer wants to keep this store open, it might lease the space to another retailer. Only, it can add a clause to the lease that disallows the new retailer from opening another grocery store in the space—or even a bodega, a farm stand, or any kind of food vendor. It’s not known whether Stop & Shop would use such a provision if it decided to vacate its Central New Haven location; however, the company did employ this tactic in 2012 in Stonington, Connecticut, about an hour’s drive West of Yale, when it refused to sublease a storefront there, after it relocated.

Read the full article about grocery stores by Lela Nargi at The Counter.