But there was intense disagreement this year on the solution proposed by officials from Prince George’s, who wanted to reward grocery stores that locate in food deserts by allowing them to sell beer and wine.
That effort, strongly backed by County Executive Angela D. Alsobrooks (D), would have made Prince George’s an outlier in a state that since 1978 has barred grocery stores from selling alcohol.
The bill failed, as did another bill that would have allowed beer and wine to be sold in some grocery stores throughout the state, following intense opposition from the liquor lobby and lawmakers outside Prince George’s. But the county bill, which its supporters want to reintroduce next year, nonetheless spurred a statewide discussion about Maryland’s unusual liquor laws, equity in terms of food access, and why some neighborhoods are saturated with liquor stores.
“There is a social justice case for grocers to locate in these underserved areas, but businesses do not respond to that,” Alsobrooks said in an interview. “Residents ask me all the time, ‘Why can’t we have these stores?’ . . . This would have been another tool in our toolbox to get them here.”
Lawmakers in years past have introduced statewide bills to allow beer and wine to be sold in grocery stores, but gained little traction. Maryland, which has a historically strong liquor lobby, is one of 10 states that does not allow grocery stores to sell alcohol (the few stores that do sell beer and wine have been grandfathered in).
In D.C., which allows beer and wine to be sold in grocery stores, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) this year tried to attract grocers to that city’s food deserts by supporting the introduction of a bill that would have allow grocery stores in Wards 7 and 8 — the city’s poorest wards, which border Prince George’s — to have a permit that is allows 25 percent of their sales to be alcohol, rather than the typical 15 percent. That legislation is awaiting a hearing.
Opponents of the Prince George’s and statewide bills argued the move would put liquor stores out of business, or that it would lead to even more alcohol in communities that already have an abundance of liquor stores.
“You have some areas that are very poor, that don’t have supermarkets, then you want beer and wine to go in there? I don’t know how that mixes,” said Del. Talmadge Branch (D-Baltimore City), a member of the economic matter committee who opposed both bills.
Alsobrooks and the Prince George’s state delegation, which backed the local bill, argued the county is the right place to chart a new course, partly because despite some success, many years of efforts to attract grocery stores — including tax incentives and subsidies — have fallen short.
“If we’re being honest, we have thrown almost everything else at this challenge,” Del. Jazz M. Lewis (D-Prince George’s) said of food deserts. “The industry is telling us they need revenue.”
Lewis, who grew up in Prince George’s, said he was often frustrated to see how many liquor stores there were in communities inside the Beltway — and that was among the chief concerns he heard from residents when he was on the campaign trail in 2018.
Officials say Prince George’s has two liquor stores per square mile in many of its poorest neighborhoods inside the Capital Beltway. Meanwhile, in wealthier, less dense neighborhoods outside the Beltway, there are an average of 0.1 liquor stores per square mile. Access to grocery stores is flipped, with dramatically less access to healthy options inside the Beltway, according to a map created by county officials.
The bill Lewis sponsored has been stripped of the measure that would have allowed beer and wine to be sold in grocery stores. But it is moving forward with a provision that would define an “alcohol density zone” as a census tract with an average of three or more licensed liquor stores per square mile, and allow liquor stores in those areas to apply to relocate to areas with fewer such stores.
Lewis said his hope is that the bill passes and liquor stores, which are currently locked into their locations based on their licenses, begin to move elsewhere on their own.
Researchers at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health found that low-income neighborhoods are more likely than wealthier ones to have access to liquor stores. And those stores, the 2018 study based in Baltimore City found, are associated with increase in violent crime.
Anne Palmer, who studies food equity at Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, said what is clear is that residents would generally rather not have too many in their neighborhoods — which raises a question about whether hoping liquor stores move outside the Beltway is a viable solution.
“You may just be relocating the problem,” she said.
Even some supporters of the bill said allowing beer and wine sales in grocery stores spoke to a grim reality that such a measure was necessary. Del. Dereck E. Davis (D-Prince George’s), who chairs the economic matters committee, pointed out that Maryland’s liquor laws have not prevented the most sought-after chains from locating elsewhere in the state, citing the Trader Joe’s in Annapolis.
“If they are right, if that is what it takes to get grocery stores, that says a lot about those corporations think of certain communities,” Davis said. “It’s a sad commentary on those corporations.”
Cailey Locklair, president of the Maryland Retailers Association, which represents the majority of the state’s grocery stores, said allowing beer and wine to be sold in grocery stores would be “a game-changer” for the industry. She said alcohol sales would be an important revenue stream in an industry in which profits are often no more than 1 to 3 percent — and it would be more practical than local governments doling out grants or subsidies to bring new grocers.
“This allows a store the ability to survive in an area that might not have the demographics or population to support it,” she said.
For Mario Minor, who grew up in Seat Pleasant, opening a grocery store a few miles away in Hampton Park is part of a mission. Minor, a cancer survivor who has had two heart attacks he attributes partly to poor nutrition growing up, said his passion is getting healthy foods into communities like the food desert in which he was raised.
The failure of the bill has not stopped his plans to open a community grocery store, Market Fresh Gourmet, later this year. But he said selling beer and wine along with fruits and vegetables would have provided him an important revenue cushion. And Minor said it is important not just to convince grocers to come to underserved parts of the county, but to ensure that they remain viable once they do.
“A lot of people can open up doors,” he said, “but it is about sustainability.”