Neighborhood aims for co-op grocery in food desert

by Eric Ginsburg

If Greensboro learned anything from the White Street Landfill fight, it’s the power of grassroots organizing and that the residents of northeast Greensboro are a force to be reckoned with. The same people who shut down attempts to reopen the landfill in their backyard are gearing up to take on another chronic issue in their neighborhood “” the lack of a grocery store.

Tired of asking the city or a private investor to come to the rescue, the community has outlined a plan to open a cooperative grocery store on the site themselves.

“With a cooperative like the one we’re trying to establish the money goes back into the community,” participant Sadie Blue said. “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.”

For 15 years, the neighborhood has hoped and pushed for a new grocery store in the Bessemer Shopping Center on Phillips Avenue near the McGirt-Horton library, where Winn Dixie used to have a store. The city of Greensboro owns the land, but has failed to make good on its plans to lure a grocery store to the location. The neighborhood is one of nine food deserts according to the US Department of Agriculture in the city, forcing residents to rely on convenience stores for staples like bread or to travel to other parts of town for groceries.

The Renaissance Cooperative Committee was formally launched and officials were elected in December after months of planning and discussions. Cooperative President Leo Steward said attendance has increased at each meeting, and about 40 people turned out for the community meeting last week for updates and discussions on the process.

It’s still early in the process, but a consultant has already begun a market study with a two-mile radius and the results “” which will include information about the project’s viability, necessary space and staffing “” are expected next week. It’s too early to speculate on when the project could go before council for funding, how much the project will cost or when the store might open, Steward said, but the report will help provide direction. At the same time, the committee is moving forward with bylaws, legal status and subcommittees to work on outreach and fundraising.

The idea to create a communitydriven store run as a consumer cooperative took hold after discussions began in the summer about alternatives to waiting on outside forces.

Energized by their organizing around the landfill, Concerned Citizens of Northeast Greensboro and Citizens for Environmental and Economic Justice began collaborating with the Fund for Democratic Communities to learn more about cooperative businesses.

After an August trip to check out a Company Shops Market, a newly formed cooperative grocery store in Burlington, fund co-managing Director Ed Whitfield said people began to take the idea more seriously. The Greensboro-based foundation is providing a logistical support role, connecting the cooperative committee with resources including consultant Ed Russ.

Whitfield said Russ was referred to them by a food distribution cooperative in Alabama and has 40 years of experience in the field. Alexandria Jones, a community organizer with the fund who has being helping on the cooperative project, said the city has agreed to split Russ’ cost three ways with the fund and the community, which she estimated would end up being under $2,000 for each party.

Organizers recently caught wind of some discussion of a private developer building a grocery store on the site, but said they prefer to operate a neighborhood grocery themselves. Supporters said they were skeptical that a private developer would follow through, and said a business’ need to make profit could mean a new store relocating in the future.

“If this was going to be done by someone else, it would’ve been done a long time ago,” Blue, the assistant treasurer for the committee, said at the meeting.

Steward said he didn’t know who the developer was, but said the city should be willing to offer the cooperative committee the same incentives it would traditionally give to a private group. Whitfield, who chaired the redevelopment commission for nine years, told meeting attendees that the city makes property available below market rate to developers to entice them to a site and said the city could foster the same relationship with a community organization.

Ideally the grocery store would attract other businesses like a pharmacy or take-out deli, as outlined in a 2003 focus group report. Plans are underway to partner the store with a forthcoming urban garden that NC A&T University is investing in and that could be underway by April, eventually providing locally grown fresh produce to the store. Unlike many other food cooperatives, Whitfield said this store aims to fill a void with access to a variety of food options and not just fill a niche “” and likely more expensive “” market for organic or local goods, though some would fall in that category.

A central benefit of creating a cooperative, organizers and meeting attendees said last week, is the aspect of local control. Members would own it collectively and control decision-making, meaning the objective wouldn’t be to turn a profit, but to provide an essential resource. The cooperative wouldn’t ever have a reason to pick up and leave, proponents said, as a new developer might, and the store could be tailored to exactly what residents wanted to purchase.

“Things are on the move at last,” former Councilwoman and Concerned Citizens organizer Goldie Wells said at the meeting “It will be ours. We’ll have some ownership.”

Wells said she anticipates the cooperative will have a long-term positive economic impact on the community, in part because residents won’t drive out of the neighborhood to buy food and because the local ownership would mean more money staying in the area.

On Jan. 16, two days after the community meeting, the Fund for Democratic Communities screened a movie about worker-run and consumer cooperatives, focusing on the expansive movement in Spain. Wells said the movie was helpful for envisioning how the grocery could work and what positive implications it could have for future generations.

“I’m just learning about cooperatives,” Wells said. “We are capitalistic over here [in the United States] and everybody is trying to make as much money as you can. This will raise our level of confidence in ourselves for what we can do for ourselves. The community is together and moving forward.”

Attendance at the meeting last week wasn’t limited to former council members “” council members Nancy Hoffmann and Marikay Abuzuaiter were there as well. Steward said the two regularly attended committee meetings along with Yvonne Johnson, adding that Councilman Jim Kee who represents the district made it to the last one.

“I love the whole concept of a coop,” Hoffmann said at the meeting Jan. 14. “The fact that this is bubbling up at the grassroots level is exciting, and I support you.”

When pressed on whether she would vote to fund the project if it came before council, Hoffmann was reluctant to commit this early on, and said she was very interested in seeing the cooperative’s strategic plan when it is developed. Abuzuaiter, who was involved in the landfill battle before joining council, was more enthusiastic.

“This is going to uplift the whole community, which is going to uplift the whole city,” she said. “This is what we’ve been talking about for years. I think this is the perfect way to proceed. You know you’ve got my vote on it.

Blue, who lived in the area and was the president of the Elwell neighborhood association until she moved in November, recalls paying marked-up prices for bread at corner stores and being frustrated that there weren’t any options when she wanted to run out quickly for a tomato or some chicken. Despite moving, she said her heart is still in the neighborhood.

“It has always been my desire to see a grocery store put back over there.” Blue said. “We’re going to”¦ cause other people in Greensboro to follow our example. It’s forthcoming, it really is, and I look forward to it.”

There are multiple different models the committee could follow, but thus far the project is being discussed as a consumer cooperative where patrons would pay into their ownership for an equal voice in decision-making and other benefits. Membership wouldn’t be limited to residents living nearby, and over 30 have already signed up. Committee officials said at the meeting that membership may be on a sliding scale, but through out the number of $100 that could be paid over time for full membership.

Steward said the store could be a worker-run cooperative as well, providing workplace democracy and control to people who would be hired out of the surrounding neighborhood to work at the store. Jones said multistakeholder models “” where an entity is a worker and consumer cooperative “” do exist, such as Weaver Street in the Triangle, but said the committee would decide exactly what model to pursue later.

For the time being, everyone who is involved in the meetings has a voice in shaping the project, she said, regardless of whether they’ve made contributions towards their membership to assist with start-up costs.

“It’s like one of those you choose the ending books that you read as a kid,” Jones said. “During economic downturns, cooperatives start coming up more and more in conversation. [The committee’s] momentum to build their community and take the lead on it in northeast Greensboro is really exciting.”