After Decades of Living in a Food Desert, Locals are Building a $2mn Co-op They Own*
For nearly 20 years, the residents of this mostly African American Greensboro community had nowhere to shop for food. They tried to attract a big-box grocery store; when that didn’t work, they started their own.
By Liz Pleasant
Guilford County, North Carolina, has 24 food deserts—high-poverty neighbourhoods where at least one-third of the residents live a mile or more from a grocery store. Seventeen of those food deserts are in the city of Greensboro. According to a 2014 report from North Carolina’s Committee on Food Desert Zones, people living in these neighbourhoods are more likely to suffer from obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and more.
“The consequences of food deserts could be enormous for public health, the economy, national security and more,” the report said.
The neighbourhood of Northeast Greensboro is one of those food deserts. There, residents have been without a local grocery store for nearly 20 years.
Back in 1998, the neighbourhood’s grocery store, Winn-Dixie, closed. The store had been profitable, but because of the way the city was divided between Winn-Dixie and other grocery chains, the company closed its location on Phillips Avenue.
In the years after, residents of Northeast Greensboro asked the city to help bring a new full-service grocery store to their neighbourhood, without success. No company was interested in investing in a store that would service a relatively small area and turn a small profit.
Then in 2012, neighbourhood residents got together with members of the Fund for Democratic Communities (F4DC), a grassroots organization in Greensboro. Through these meetings, residents learned that they didn’t have to wait for a company to build a grocery store in their neighbourhood. They could do it themselves.
“I think the reason it struck a chord is because people organized for years to attract a corporate grocery store to the community and were rebuffed every time,” says James Lamar Gibson, who grew up in Greensboro and originally started working on the community-owned co-op project as a contractor with F4DC.
“When the spark was lit that we can do this for ourselves, that’s what resonated with a lot of the community members.”
Today, Gibson continues to work as a volunteer for the Renaissance Community Co-op, which is set to open in the neighborhood’s former Winn-Dixie building in May 2016.
John Jones, chairman of the co-op’s board of directors, is also a resident of the neighborhood. Once a supervisor for the 911 call center of Greensboro, Jones retired the same year the Winn-Dixie shut its doors. Today, he says, the nearest grocery store is two-and-half miles away from where he lives.
There are several corner stores nearby, says Jones, but many of them charge high prices for food, making grocery shopping expensive for residents who can’t make the two-mile trek to the closest supermarket.
“Those types of stores have a high impact on the neighbourhood,” explains Jones.
“A gallon of milk will cost you $5.” Jones looks forward to the day he and his neighbours can get the food their families need at reasonable prices.
“I own this store”
To raise money, the co-op first began selling memberships: For $100, residents became member-owners. As member-owners, they get co-op voting privileges, and can help shape RCC into the type of store they want. Today, the co-op has about 630 members. Their goal is to have 1,000 residents sign up by the time the store opens.
Jones says the idea of being an owner of the co-op has gotten a lot of residents really excited. He remembers one night during a meeting when a man stood up and said,
“We’re not only members, we are owners. I think we should be addressed as owners.”
After that, says Jones, organizers went through and changed their whole application form from membership to ownership.
“It went over like a blimp going over a football game,” says Jones.
“They were really excited about becoming an owner of a grocery store in their neighbourhood.” Now, the RCC T-shirts the co-op sells say “I own this store” on the back.
Of course, member-owner fees haven’t covered all the costs of the project. In total RCC needs to raise $2.1 million, and they’re about 95 percent of the way there. Thanks to things like grassroots fundraising, loans from foundations, and grants from the city, RCC needs to earn just $100,000 to reach their goal.
Another big help was Self-Help Venture Funds (SHVF). In January 2015, Self-Help bought the shopping centre where the old Winn-Dixie building is located from the city of Greensboro. Along with the abandoned grocery store, Self-Help is renovating the whole shopping centre. Once that’s done, SHVF plans to rent to RCC, a health care clinic, a pharmacy, and a credit union.
Kim Cameron, Self-Help’s director of real estate, says renting RCC and these other business is one way the organization can help Northeast Greensboro build up the services residents need in their neighbourhood.
“We have seen that commercial real estate development fit our goals of building economic self-sufficiency and stability in low- and moderate-income neighbourhoods,” reads the purchase offer letter SHVF submitted to the city back in 2013.
“Our strategy is to purchase vacant or underutilized properties, renovate those properties to make them attractive for modern uses, lease the resulting space primarily to small businesses and nonprofits, and then hold and manage the properties for the long term.”
By buying the building from the city and renting to RCC, Self-Help is able to offer the co-op a tenant improvement allowance. Unlike a traditional loan, Self-Help can lend RCC money for improvements to the building, which the co-op can then pay back throughout its lease.
A people’s grocery
With the initial fundraising almost complete, RCC is ready to take on the next steps of the project: getting the food and hiring employees.
“We’ve done canvassing surveys in the neighbourhood,” says Gibson.
“All the products in the store will reflect what people have told us they wanted.”
Now that RCC has identified the types of food residents want to see in the store, organizers are starting to reach out to distributors. He says the goal is to work with as many local companies and producers as possible—from the food they buy to the delivery companies to the refrigeration systems.
RCC will have all the options of a traditional grocery store, as well as some other services residents have expressed interest in.
“We will have an area for teaching people how to cook food for good health,” says Jones.
“And will have some organic foods in our store, but we will also have the foods that the people said that they wanted.”
RCC organizers have made sure to let the community know that this won’t look like a typical co-op in a higher-income neighbourhood. The neighbourhood is predominantly made up of low-income black families, so the food and the prices will reflect that.
The hiring, says Jones, will reflect that as well.
“We are hiring people from the neighbourhood,” he says.
“We’ll have 32 jobs. Fifteen will be permanent and 17 will be part time. And we’ll be paying $10 an hour.”
North Carolina’s minimum wage is $7.25 an hour.
As their dream becomes a reality, organizers hope the RCC and the community of northeast Greensboro are set to become an example of what it looks like when the goal of a business is to serve its community.