Greensboro Community Looks to Food Cooperative to Fill Grocery Gap

April 6, 2015

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

A low-income community of color is applying a cooperative solution to combat food insecurity.

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What would you do if the only full-service grocery store in your community suddenly closed? For the residents of northeast Greensboro, NC, this became a daunting reality. When the local Winn Dixie that served the area for decades closed in the late 90s, the area turned into a food desert. Despite the store’s profitability, the grocery chain started to consolidate as market shares were being threatened by regional competition from retailers such as Walmart and Food Lion. Overnight, residents were left food insecure.

Food deserts are defined as a residential area with a high level of poverty and where at least 33% of its residents live more than a mile from a full-service grocery store. The USDAestimates that of the 23.5 million living in food deserts, 13.5 million are low-income.Neighborhood characteristics often determine the variety of food residents have access to. White neighborhoods contain an average of four times as many supermarkets as predominantly black ones do, and grocery stores in African-American communities are usually smaller with less selection.

If you live in Greensboro, chances are you live in close proximity to a food desert. Last spring, the Committee on Food Desert Zones, a legislative research commission created by the North Carolina General Assembly, identified 17 food deserts in Greensboro. “We really just need a grocery store,” Brenda Hughes, a resident, told a local news station. “I need a grocery store where I can just walk. It’s more convenient for me to have a grocery store right here in the neighborhood.”

Now, after nearly 15 years of practically begging for a corporate chain to solve their lack of access to a grocery store, community residents are building one themselves- and they’ll own it. In 2012, a group of community residents formed the Renaissance Coop Committee (RCC) and began educating themselves about the responsibilities and benefits of community-ownership of a grocery store. They studied all aspects of launching and sustaining a cooperative grocery store, including membership, democratic governance, financing, and more.

With the technical assistance of the Fund for Democratic Communities (F4DC), a foundation that supports democratic, community-based initiatives and institutions, the RCC developed detailed financial projections, commissioned a professional market study, and began reaching out to the community to build an engaged, informed base of members.

“With a cooperative like the one we’re trying to establish the money goes back into the community,” steering committee member, Sadie Blue stated at a city council meeting. “We have a vested interest. It’s our store, and we have the ability to make the store fit the needs of the people in that community.”

To date, well over 300 hundred residents have each invested $100 to become member-owners of the Renaissance Community Coop, a full-service grocery store they expect to open in the former Winn-Dixie space in fall 2015. “This is not going to be an organic, natural-focused grocery store like most co-ops,” explained Dave Reed, an organizer and cooperative developer with F4DC, which works with the RCC.“It’s going to be a traditional, full-service grocery store, like Kroger or Food Lion,” he added. “It wouldn’t make any sense to put a Whole Foods in a community that can’t afford it.”

 As the growth in economic inequality in our country becomes more evident, many low-income communities are exploring ways to become more self-reliant when it comes to certain modes of production. One alternative, equitable model that promotes self-reliance are cooperatives, and they are gaining traction particularly as a means of building a more just food system. In 2006, the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network was created in order to address food insecurity within the city’s black communities. To date, the DBCFSN maintain a seven-acre farm and have also formed the Ujiamaa food co-op to help supply the need for low cost healthy food though co-operative buying power.

To date, The Renaissance Community Coop has raised a total of $1.06 million, and it will need about $600,000 more to reach its goal—a difference it hopes to make up through economic-development incentives from the city. This past January, Self-Help Ventures Fund, an affiliate of Self-Help Credit Union, bought the space formerly owned by Winn-Dixie from the City of Greensboro for $490,000. City officials have discussed a $250,000 challenge grant, with the hopes that Guilford County will fund an equal amount, leaving project boosters to raise the last $80,000 toward the estimated $1.8 million needed to open the store and hire staff.

In an interview , RCC organizer and  co-op member, James Gibson stated “This is a project that doesn’t necessarily fall into the realm of what people imagine is possible when they think about wealth building or asset building. The fact that this community had a vision, identified partners to work with, and then pursued that vision and are now on the cusp of realizing it, speaks to the power of communities to do whatever they put their minds to.”

The residents of northeast Greensboro are doing more than just building a grocery store. They are demonstrating that communities of color have the power to invest in their communities and develop their own economic future without relying on the power of corporations.

Tags: building resilient food systems, food deserts