UNIVERSITY CITY • A dried-out batch of asparagus has touched off a debate about racial discrimination, grocery stores and the role of citizen-led commissions.
It started in May when resident David Olander was perusing the produce section of the University City Schnucks. He noticed the asparagus weren’t resting in a tray of water.
“It was just sitting there dried out,” said Olander, a member of the city’s human relations commission.
Olander summoned an assistant manager, and then he asked the question: Did the quality of the asparagus have any relationship to the store’s location in a black neighborhood?
“‘I certainly hope not,’” Olander recalled the manager saying.
Olander’s experience prompted him to write a letter to Schnucks CEO Scott Schnuck, and out of that came a meeting with Schnucks employees.
But the letter and meeting were tinged with allegations that the St. Louis area’s largest grocery chain was discriminating against minority communities — accusations that Schnucks vehemently denies.
“Schnucks does not discriminate on any level,” said spokeswoman Lori Willis.
Most of these events occurred without the knowledge of the City Council — some of whom were upset to learn that someone representing a city commission had leveled racial discrimination accusations against one of the city’s long-standing businesses.
“We want businesses in University City, and in particular we want Schnucks,” said Councilwoman Paulette Carr. “I think it’s a very bad practice on our part to send our citizens to represent the city on sensitive issues such as this.”
Mayor Shelley Welsch, however, doesn’t believe the commission acted outside its authority. The seven-member commission advises the City Council on a variety of matters to prevent discrimination and foster a welcoming environment. “If they perceive something is different, they have the right to ask why,” Welsch said.
In any case, the council last month forbade the commission to have any more meetings with businesses — including Schnucks — until the commission’s role was clarified by the city manager and city attorney.
Olander, meanwhile, stands by his actions.
The asparagus he saw back in May was a far cry from the asparagus he had seen at the Schnucks about eight miles away in Ladue, where it sat in water, looking beautiful, he told his fellow commissioners, according to a recording of the meeting.
Olander admitted to being in an “ornery mood” the day he visited the store. “I just felt like stirring it up a little bit, letting them know that somebody cares,” he said, according to the recording.
Olander also told the manager about his membership in the commission and asked her to give him a call with the store’s response. She never did, he said.
Then, at the commission’s next meeting May 16, Olander recounted the experience.
What happened next is a matter of disagreement.
Kathy McGinnis, the commission’s chairwoman, said the general consensus of the members was for Olander to pursue the matter further. But that’s not clear from an audiotape of the meeting.
On the tape, some individuals can be heard thanking Olander for sharing his experience, but not giving him any direction. McGinnis said the commission never voted on the matter.
Olander said he tried unsuccessfully to get a meeting with the store’s manager. Then he fired off the letter to Scott Schnuck.
That move prompted a meeting with Olander; McGinnis; Ellen Bern, of the University City Chamber of Commerce; Elaine Williams, human resources manager for the city; and three Schnucks representatives, according to minutes.
Olander has insisted that his issues with the store didn’t solely relate to the asparagus, and at the meeting, numerous other complaints about the store were brought up, including: litter in the parking lot, general cleanliness, warm food coolers and out-of-date items being offered for sale.
Olander said Schnucks seemed to take the suggestions to heart. “My sense is that Schnucks is showing good faith in this matter,” he said.
Willis declined to describe any action the store may have taken in response to the meeting. She said complaints about warm food coolers and out-of-date products could not be substantiated. Willis acknowledged that some stores in the suburbs might be nicer, but that’s only because they are newer.
“That meeting was the first we had heard of these concerns,” Willis said. “The University City Schnucks is a clean store. It’s just not a brand-new facility.”
As for the asparagus, Willis said Schnucks displays it uniformly at all its stores. On the day Olander visited, Willis said the tray of water in which the vegetable sat had simply tipped over. Employees quickly corrected the problem.
On a recent visit to the University City store, the parking lot was free of litter. A long row of geraniums greeted customers as they entered. In the produce section, everything appeared fresh.
Mike Johnson, 38, of St. Louis, was standing next to the asparagus — it was in water, and was an inviting shade of green. “It’s always been all right for me,” Johnson said of the produce.