Co-op Offers Oasis in a Southern Town Food Desert
One of the weekly specials at the soft opening of the Renaissance Community Co-op in Greensboro, North Carolina, was on whole chicken—68 cents a pound. The distributor hooked up the fledgling store with what it considered a sufficient number of birds.
“We literally sold out in about four hours,” said cooperative organizer Dave Reed of the nonprofit group Fund for Democratic Communities, who helped Renaissance Community Co-op organize and is also a co-op member. “That was a real good price,” he said.
Low price paired with high need caused birds to fly the co-op refrigerator case. The East Greensboro neighborhood had been without a grocery store since Winn-Dixie closed in 1998. The effects have been significant. In 2015, the USDA designated 24 census tracts in Guilford County food deserts. That year, the Greensboro–High Point metro area ranked first nationally in a Gallup poll that measured what percentage of the total population was food insecure.
Now, the formerly abandoned shopping center on Phillips Avenue is home to a 10,530-square-foot grocery store envisioned, built, and owned by more than 900 community members. Through loans and grants, including a $250,000 grant from the city, the co-op secured $2.45 million in financing to open the store.
Inside, the cooperative spirit runs high. The co-op is considering special display tags to highlight other cooperatively owned brands within the store, including Equal Exchange, a worker-owned coffee cooperative that supports fair trade with its farmer partners. The general manager worked to make sure the price for a small cup would be competitive with that of gas stations nearby—99 cents.
Price and pay have been some of the co-op’s priorities from the beginning. They wanted to offer the staff at least $10 an hour, a goal they were able to meet. The state’s minimum wage is $7.25 per hour.
Most of the store’s employees live in the immediate neighborhood. Full-time employees outnumber part-time employees and will be eligible for health care benefits that should start up in the next several months, Reed said. The soft opening has given the staff the chance to smooth out the bumps of running a functional store, including troubleshooting the credit card machine and memorizing which aisle the ketchup is on.
“Folks are really happy with the staff and the way that the staff is relating to them,” Reed said. “That’s been something that they’ve brought up several times.”
Nonprofit groups in the area have expressed interest in running nutrition and cooking classes in the store’s community room, which could close the gap on what researchers say is as important in a food desert as the supermarket itself: education.
“Plopping down a grocery store is not a silver bullet,” Mari Gallagher, a Chicago-based consultant, told The Wall Street Journal this week.
“There’s all these variables,” said Roger Thurow, senior fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. “It’s not as simple as putting a grocery store or farmers market or some shop with fresh food available there.”
Arguments that stress the importance of education frustrate Reed—it’s not that people don’t know how to prepare or eat healthy foods; it’s that they cannot access or afford them.
“The notion that [argument] gets down to is, ‘Well, people are just stupid, and that’s why they eat crap,' and that’s just not true,” he said. “There are big socioeconomic reasons why people are able to consume whatever they consume.”
In addition to greater–than–minimum wage pay, the co-op got other items on its wish list, including a full-service meat department with a butcher and a cutter, a rarity in a store this size, Reed said, or in stores twice the size. To keep costs low in an industry with notoriously slim margins, many grocery stores since the early aughts have done away with their in-store butchers in favor of selling case-ready meat cut, processed, and packaged at a centralized facility.
“With this co-op, the profit line wasn’t the primary consideration—the benefit to the community was the primary motivation,” Reed said. “People wanted to go in and know their butcher.”