Can a Co-op Feed This Food Desert—and Revitalize a Neighborhood?

In Greensboro, North Carolina, residents are done waiting for a corporate chain to solve their lack of access to a grocery store.

(Photo: Courtesy Indiegogo.com)

Jan 8, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Sarah McColl has written for Yahoo Food, Bon Appétit, and other publications. She's based in Brooklyn, New York.

There are nine food deserts in Greensboro, North Carolina, but residents in the northeastern part of the city, where the Winn-Dixie grocery store closed in 1998, have stopped waiting for a superstore to sweep in. Instead, they’re opening their own.

“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.”

Hughes and 300 other 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 the nonprofit group Fund for Democratic Communities, 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.”

A steering committee was formed two years ago to make the store a reality, and the group has since gained steam. The RCC 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.

But will a co-op be enough to bring about changes in eating habits in a predominantly African American, low-income neighborhood?

Some critics say it takes more than a grocery store to improve the community health of a food desert. In a relatively small study published last year, Steven Cummins, a professor of population health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, found that while perceptions of access to healthy food changed when a grocery store opened in a food desert, that didn’t necessarily translate into behavioral changes, such as increased consumption of fruits and vegetables.

“There’s been a lot of efforts all over the country in terms of trying to bring in new grocery stores or convert corner stores to increase access to healthy food,” says Alex Ortega, a professor at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health and the director of a five-year initiative to increase the healthy food options at corner stores in East Los Angeles. If the goal is to improve the food environment of the neighborhood, Ortega said, the success of a project such as Renaissance Community Coop depends in part on members of the community being able to afford it.

Since its initial planning stages, the RCC has talked about meeting the needs of its community by focusing on accessibility and affordability.

Cummins’ study also showed that even when stores open in food deserts, that doesn’t mean residents will shop there. Some will continue to travel outside the community for groceries, either out of habit or to find the best deals. RCC may be able to dodge that issue, however, as the co-op model should help the store more directly meet the needs of its community.

“Originally, cooperatives were businesses that people developed to meet a mutual need,” said RCC board member Casey Thomas. “In this case that need is affordable food in the neighborhood they live in. With co-ops people often think of wealthy communities, often white communities. This state has a very rich history of black cooperatives organizing.”

For Renaissance Community Coop, wealth will be the the least of its concerns.

“The goal is not necessarily to make a profit; it’s to meet the needs of its owners,” Reed explained. The “overwhelming majority” of those stakeholders live near the planned RCC site. Speaking on behalf of those residents, he said, “We need access to quality fresh food, and we need good-paying jobs.” Both Reed and Thomas mentioned the importance of staffing the store with locals. The starting wage will be $10 an hour; North Carolina’s minimum wage is $7.25.

“People are very excited to have a store that keeps the profits in the community,” Thomas said. “When people have stores in low-income areas and predominantly black areas, it’s often a mass exodus of cash. People are excited about having a grocery store for health, but also the community’s economic health.”