Can Community Ownership Eliminate Food Deserts?

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imagesA previous post to this blog looked at development finance tools that can be used to address food deserts. This post introduces new findings about food deserts and looks at a cooperative grocer in Greensboro that aims to eliminate its neighborhood’s food desert and spur economic development.

“Give a person a fish,” the proverb goes, “and you’ll feed them for a day; build a neighborhood a grocery store and you’ll see ‘minimal effect on household food availability and no statistically significant impact on consumption habits.’”

Or something like that. Recently, the New York Times reported on new research that casts doubt on the idea that putting grocery stores in food deserts—areas with limited access to affordable and healthy food—is an effective way to improve the health of residents of low-income communities. One study concluded that after its first year, the introduction of a government-subsidized grocery store in an underserved South Bronx neighborhood had “minimal effect on household food availability and no statistically significant impact on consumption habits.” Another study suggested that the nutritional quality of a bag of groceries has much more to do with the education—and to some extent the income—of the person pushing a cart than it does that person’s proximity to a store that sells healthy food.

One takeaway from these studies is that shoppers—in addition to stores—must change in order to solve the health problems associated with food deserts. In an economic sense, communities must address both the supply and demand for food in order to eliminate food deserts. What ends up on your plate may not so much reflect what’s on nearby supermarket shelves, but rather your personal preferences, cultural food traditions, and budget. It may also reflect the amount of time and energy you have to prepare a meal after a day at work, the condition of your kitchen, and what you know how to cook. Still, eliminating food deserts by increasing access to healthy food is a necessary first step toward improving community health and food security.

Greensboro made headlines in April when a report by the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) ranked it the most food insecure metropolitan area in the country. Food insecurity, according to the USDA, is the “limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods or limited or uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways.” FRAC, which also ranked states (North Carolina was eighth overall in food insecurity), looked at Gallup poll data that asked hundreds of thousands of households, “Have there been times in the past 12 months when you did not have enough money to buy food that you or your family needed?”

While the FRAC report may surprise many residents of North Carolina’s third-largest city, it wasn’t news to residents of northeast Greensboro, who saw their last grocery store, a Winn-Dixie, close in 1998. Since then, residents—many of whom do not have cars—have had to choose between miles-long trips to grocery stores and the unhealthy food options available at corner stores.

After years of watching the city leaders unsuccessfully lobby grocery chains to move into the nearly vacant shopping center that once housed Winn-Dixie, neighborhood residents began to make their campaign for a grocery store about more than food. No one in the community doubted that the absence of a grocery store, a lack of jobs, and high rates of chronic disease were intimately linked, but it wasn’t until a few years ago that anyone had proposed a viable way to address all three: developing a community-owned grocery store on the vacant former Winn-Dixie site.

The Renaissance Community Co-op, or RCC, as the proposed grocery store is often called, isn’t your typical supermarket, and it also isn’t your typical food co-op. Many people are familiar with co-ops—shoppers can purchase a membership, or ownership share, and the store functions almost like a buyer’s club, pooling resources to buy the food demanded by member-owners. Examples in North Carolina include Weaver Street Market in the Triangle, Deep Roots Market in Greensboro, the Company Shops in Burlington, and Tidal Creek in Wilmington. These stores are known for selling healthy, organic products. They are often the only stores in a city that offer quinoa by the pound or a selection of natural cleaning products.

The RCC probably won’t be selling much artisanal kombucha or wasabi seaweed, though. Organizers say it’s not a health food store, but it will influence community health in two major ways. First, it will create direct access to food, which the neighborhood currently lacks. For example, the RCC plans to devote about eight percent of its shelf space to produce, which organizers say is standard for grocery stores, but far above the amount of produce space available in the convenience stores that currently serve the neighborhood’s food needs. The cooperative structure, through which profits are re-invested in the store, will allow that food to be sold at prices that are affordable to residents.

But the larger way in which organizers hope the RCC will have health impacts in the community is from its role as an economic development catalyst. RCC board member Casey Thomas says “Most people in the community and most people involved with the project aren’t just looking at blood pressure, or cholesterol, or incidence of stroke or heart disease in a vacuum.” Instead, they see poor health outcomes and a general lack of economic opportunity as interdependent and interrelated. Thomas says that health outcomes in the community will improve as northeast Greensboro sees the economic development that other parts of the city have enjoyed.

Organizers project that the store will create over 30 jobs—17 of them fulltime—and the cooperative structure, in addition to keeping prices affordable, will allow the store to start even its lowest-paid employees at $10 per hour. Longer term, residents are planning how the RCC can anchor the redevelopment of the entire shopping center of which is a part. Instead of making profits for shareholders and delivering returns to investors outside of the community, the money the RCC makes will be reinvested in the store and the neighborhood. “A lot of grocery stores look for a profit margin of four to six percent,” says Thomas. “We have to be responsible to our investors, too, but what they want is different. They want a grocery store in the neighborhood.”

The recently released studies on food deserts suggest that simply making food available might not have the hoped-for effect in low-income communities. It remains to be seen if the RCC’s model of community ownership will allow it to address the neighborhood’s interconnected food, health, and economic issues, but if the RCC lives up to its promise of bringing good food and good jobs to northeast Greensboro, it may serve as a blueprint for how low-income communities across the state and the country can begin to address the array of health and economic challenges they face.

A future blog post will look at how the northeast Greensboro neighborhood gained site control and assembled the financing for the RCC.

Andrew Trump is a student in the Master of City and Regional Planning and Master of Public Administration programs at UNC-Chapel Hill and a fellow at the Development Finance Initiative.

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