Co-op Meets Food Desert: Cash-Strapped Volunteers Get a Discount on Groceries

Members of Good Grocer in Minneapolis swap bagging and stocking duties for a break on the bill.
(Photo: Facebook)
Oct 14, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

Skip the boxes of processed macaroni and cheese and fill your shopping cart with fruits and vegetables—it’s commonsense advice for folks who want to get (or stay) healthy. But for unemployed or minimum-wage workers struggling to cough up enough cash for rent or day care costs, the sticker shock over the price of a pint of blackberries or a pound of grapes usually makes the cheap meal-in-a-box much more appealing.

What if those more nutritious offerings were offered up at a discount in exchange for two-and-a-half hours of volunteer time? That’s the idea behind Good Grocer, a co-op–style nonprofit market that opened this summer in Minneapolis. The store gives a discount to members who commit to performing specific jobs: stocking shelves, ringing up produce, bagging items, or cleaning.

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The store is in a food desert, so people who aren’t members are welcome to shop there. But once someone completes Good Grocer’s short membership application and commits to volunteering, he or she is eligible for a 25 percent discount. More than 300 people have become members so far, and about three people join every day, according to Kurt Vickman, the founder of Good Grocer.

“People are signing up not only to get a better price on food but also because they want to volunteer their time at a place that is not only helping themselves, but others as well,” Vickman wrote in an email to TakePart. “Sometimes we forget that even people who are struggling financially or in other areas of their lives still have a desire to give back and to be a part of something that is having an impact on people’s lives. We have to stop treating those in need as helpless clients and start to see them as gifted contributors.”

(Photo: Facebook)

Part of the appeal of the store revolves around its commitment to finding the value in individuals that others might sometimes see as worthless.

“Recently, a guy came in and wanted to become a member. A few minutes into the conversation he became a little apprehensive,” explained Vickman. “We finally uncovered why when he said, ‘Just want you to know, I can’t read.’ Normally that’s probably the place in the conversation when someone says to him, ‘Yeah, thanks, but no thanks.’ But we get to say to him, ‘Hey, this job doesn’t require the skill of reading. What else can you do?’ ”

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Vickman, a pastor who has long been an advocate of connecting people in need with healthy food while also preserving their dignity, previously ran a small-scale food shelf that served low-income residents of Minneapolis.

Because of the shelf’s limited inventory, he found that people were still trekking to get traditional groceries that were often unaffordable. Now, thanks to backing from corporate sponsors, Vickman has been able to grow the shelf into the Good Grocer market. The store stocks more than 3,000 foods, including cultural items that appeal to the community’s growing Latino and Somali populations.

Some people might think a co-op grocery sounds like an idea straight out of Portlandia, with hipsters looking for artisanal cheese and organic kale. According to Vickman, Good Grocer reflects the original intent of food co-ops: to help “everyday people who wanted to eat healthier but often couldn’t afford it.” And if guys sporting handlebar moustaches happen to come into the market to purchase organic tofu or red bell peppers, Vickman’s goal is for them to shop and volunteer alongside their less-well-off neighbors.

“So often communities are divided racially and economically. One of the things that’s been most exciting that is impacting the community is the ability to put together a store that is run by the community that is bridging these divides,” Vickman wrote. “As you bring people with different backgrounds together and invite them to work together, they begin to get to know each other in a way that wouldn’t otherwise happen.”

Vickman shared that the owners of a local car dealership are shopping and volunteering at the store alongside the people who clean the cars. “No one is more important than the other in the model of our store and community,” he wrote.

Vickman hopes to grow Good Grocer so that it becomes a self-sustaining business, and the model is one that could be expanded to other parts of the country. He cautions, however, that individuals or groups hoping to start a similar market need to reflect on what people really need and remember they’re not “gift-less or don’t have the time to help someone else. Everyone has a God-given purpose,” he wrote.