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Could liquor stores be a solution to Colorado’s food deserts?

Senate Bill 33 would allow patrons to pick up both brandy and broccoli, whiskey and watermelon, and scotch and salmon
Bottles of alcohol at Morgans Liquor at 1200 E. Evans Ave. in Denver. (Kathryn Scott/Special to The Colorado Sun)

If there’s one thing Colorado has a lot of, it’s liquor stores. There are more than 1,500 of them in the state.

And state Sen. Kevin Priola sees them as a way to help eliminate a stubborn problem plaguing both Colorado’s inner-city neighborhoods and rural parts of the state: food deserts, areas where people have limited or no access to nutritious food.

“There are lots of inner-city parts of the state, as well as rural parts of the state, where there is no grocery store for miles and miles,” the Republican lawmaker from Henderson said. “But liquor stores are everywhere.”

Priola has teamed up with state Rep. Lisa Cutter, a Morrison Democrat, to introduce Senate Bill 33 at the Colorado Capitol this year, which would exempt fruit, vegetables, nuts and meat – as long as they’re not in a “substantially” processed form – from a state mandate that says non-alcohol products can’t exceed 20% of a liquor store’s sales.

The objective is simple: give liquor stores the option to become a place where their patrons can pick up both brandy and broccoli, whiskey and watermelon, and scotch and salmon.

“It doesn’t require them to do it,” Priola said. “It just says they may do it.”

What exactly constitutes a food desert isn’t agreed upon. One definition is an urban area where someone can’t walk to a store that offers fresh food within 10 minutes, or a rural area where fresh food is more than 10 miles away.

In Denver, the Elyria-Swansea and College View neighborhoods have been identified as food deserts. Large swaths of the San Luis Valley and Baca, Bent, Prowers and Yuma counties have also been called food deserts. Both are areas that have liquor stores.

Liquor stores don’t think the legislation is a shot worth taking – at least not right now – and that may doom the measure.

They argue the bill could upset a complicated 2016 agreement they made with grocery stores – called “the grand compromise” – that dramatically changed where full-strength beer can be sold in Colorado. And fresh food isn’t an area where they see a potential for profit.

“This is just the wrong answer,” said Chris Fine, executive director of the Colorado Licensed Beverage Association, which opposes the measure. “The reason that liquor stores don’t sell those products is because it doesn’t work with our business model. They don’t have the storage to store these things. It’s just impractical.”

Fine also points out that liquor stores are prohibited from accepting food stamps. Finally, he worries that the bill would only serve to benefit a few liquor stores, and that it might create more competition for his members by encouraging butchers and specialty grocery stores to get a liquor license.

The bottom line, Fine says, is that liquor stores are not the silver bullet Priola may be looking for.

Sen. Robert Rodriguez, a Denver Democrat who is chairman of the Senate Business, Labor and Technology Committee, where Senate Bill 33 was assigned, did not respond to a request for comment on the bill. But the vice chairman of the committee, Sen. James Coleman, another Denver Democrat, worries the legislation may not be the right approach.

“I’m not opposed to the bill, but I don’t think it solves the problem,” he said. “I think the real solution is to build some healthy options.”

The Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of Colorado and Colorado Petroleum Marketers Association, which represents convenience stores, are so far taking a neutral stance on the measure, state lobbying disclosures show.

Priola said he has spoken with Healthier Colorado, Children’s Hospital Colorado, the Colorado Blueprint to End Hunger, Hunger Free Colorado and Nourish Colorado about Senate Bill 33, but there are no lobbyists for advocacy groups that work on food deserts or related issues signed up to support or oppose the measure. That may be a sign that Senate Bill 33 isn’t something they feel strongly about.

Representatives for Healthier Colorado, Hunger Free Colorado and Nourish Colorado either didn’t respond to requests for comment Monday or declined to comment.

“I’m kind of surprised there is a lot of opposition,” said Cutter, the Democratic sponsor of the measure. “I signed onto it because it’s a creative approach.”

Annie Oakley’s Grocery and Liquor Store employee Michele Joyce takes a cigarette break in the doorway along on Central City’s Main Street on April 27, 2020. (Andy Colwell/Special to The Colorado Sun)

Priola said the alcohol industry naysayers are people who don’t want to upset the “apple cart of a deal that was cut six years ago.” And he fully recognizes that it’s unlikely that all of the state’s liquor stores would take advantage of the policy change if it somehow clears the big hurdles ahead of it.

“But they would at least have the opportunity to serve their community,” he said.

He thinks Denver’s Montbello neighborhood, which several years ago was labeled a food desert, is a perfect example of where his bill could be useful. There are just one or two grocery stores but several liquor stores.

“I think at the bare minimum it’ll be, pun intended, a healthy conversation,” he said.

The Colorado Sun is a reader-supported, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to covering Colorado issues. To learn more, go to coloradosun.com.