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How Cooperative Grocery Stores are Bringing Food Access to Low-Income Neighborhoods

Jun 16, 2015 | News & Updates

This post was originally published by the Coopertaive Development Institute

A Broken Food System

It’s no secret that, despite being the wealthiest nation on Earth and a leader in agricultural exports, many residents of the United States regularly experience hunger and food insecurity. Even so, it’s often shocking to hear that one in seven American households (14.3%) experienced food insecurity in 2013, with another 5.6% of households classified as having “very low food security," according to the USDA. At the root of American hunger is poverty, which describes the economic circumstances of approximately 16% of Americans. These same households struggling with poverty and hunger are also more likely to suffer from obesity.

In recent years the public has become increasingly aware of the critical role played by food access in determining health outcomes for individuals and communities. In under-resourced communities throughout the US, the grocery industry–now dominated by national corporate chains–has closed or relocated stores in the face of dramatic reductions in the buying power of their customers, unable to keep up with rising food prices and the increased profit demands of executives and shareholders. In their place remain convenience stores saturated with cheap, highly processed foods, food pantries laden with donated nonperishables, or for the fortunate few, long, expensive drives to the closest supermarket (forget public transportation). Check out the USDA’s Food Access Atlas to find out if there’ a “food desert” near you, or if perhaps you live in one. As you can see, food access can be a problem in rural and in urban areas, and is linked to household and neighborhood income, as well as vehicle or public transportation access.

The Scars of Structural Violence

The cooperative movement often frames itself as an effort to regain local and democratic control over key community resources. Food, as a necessity of life, is mostly certainly a “key community resource”, control over which has been depleted by corporate consolidation in the food system, commodity speculation, and again, poverty. Therefore, food cooperatives could and should serve as a holistic solution to food deserts in under-resourced communities, right?

The answer can be yes, but it shouldn’t be considered a foregone conclusion. Whether you are an outsider looking to offer a helping hand to neighbors in a food desert, or a resident of one yourself, it’s important to recognize the profound and lasting effects that resource scarcity, particularly food insecurity, has on individuals and communities. In food deserts, the common cultural values that drive the development of most food co-ops–consuming whole food diets, supporting local and sustainable producers, democratic participation–struggle to develop in an environment where survival depends on maximizing the caloric return for every dollar spent. Federal subsidies for corn, soy, wheat, and sugar have transformed calorically dense, nutritionally-deficient junk food into affordable staples for millions of Americans, while fruits and vegetables remain out of reach. When the budget runs dry, many find themselves in the food pantry line, an experience that represents a loss of control over one’s food: what you receive, when you receive it, and how you receive it is all determined by someone else.

This is not to say that people living in low-income communities or food deserts have no interest or experience with healthy food, or locally/sustainably sourced food for that matter. It is also not to say that there is no interest in the democratic participation required by a co-op. The point is that successful efforts to improve food access require that these structural barriers be understood, respected, and addressed by the community as a whole.

A Food Cooperative That Fits

It’s here that we need to make a distinction between food co-ops that are first and foremost designed to meet a community desire for organic and natural food as their fundamental goal, and food co-ops that are designed expressly to address food desert situations in rural or urban areas. Many food co-ops in the first category are working to find ways to help their offerings be more affordable and/or attractive and/or nearby to low-income people. But that’s different from food co-ops whose fundamental mission is to provide a full service grocery store in a low-income area that has no grocery stores, AKA a food desert. Besides addressing the food desert issue, this approach is trying to anchor the ownership of the co-op in the low-income community that needs the store as a community-owned asset, rather than it being owned primarily by a more amorphous “organic-and-natural” community that is also concerned with low-income people’s food access.

The business models of organic-and-natural stores (which is what the vast majority of U.S. food co-ops are) versus conventional grocery stores are different enough that we have to stay aware of these distinctions. The customer bases, the financing, the price point, the distribution system, etc are all different enough that if we want to use the co-op model to meet the need for grocery stores in food deserts, we have to be thoughtful about which needs we’re trying to address and which models we’re going to implement. Below are some examples of member- and/or worker-owned food cooperatives that are either making significant efforts to serve low-income/food desert residents, or were started with the explicit mission of providing affordable, healthy food to those communities:

  • Hendersonville Co-op (Hendersonville, NC) – organic-and-natural with outreach
  • Mariposa Food Cooperative (Philadelphia, PA) – organic-and-natural, with a focus on food justice
    • Consumer-owned cooperative, with day-to-day operations run by a democratically-governed staff collective.
    • Located within a mixed-income region of Philadelphia.
    • The “Mariposa Membership Fund” seeks to subsidize the cost of membership ($200) for low-income residents. The co-op’s goal is to provide this subsidy to at least 10% of their membership.
    • The Food Justice and Anti-Racism Working Group, a committee of member-owners, runs a lending library, organizes educational events, and provides funding to ally organizations.
  • East End Food Co-op (Pittsburgh, PA) – affordable-healthy
    • Began as an affordable food buying club organized by the East End Cooperative Ministry, operated by and for members
    • Opened to the public to increase healthy food access and to make food more affordable for all
    • 11,000 member households, 90 employees.
  • Renaissance Coop (Greensboro, NC) – affordable-healthy
    • Organized by Northeast Greensboro residents and the Fund for Democratic Communities to create a full-service community-owned grocery store that provides affordable and healthy food and more than 30 good paying jobs
    • Began organizing in 2012 after years of waiting for a chain grocer to replace a shuttered Winn Dixie that closed in 1998
    • Is working with Uplift Solutions, Self-Help Ventures Fund, Lakeshore Food Advisors, and CDS as consultants for their development process
    • Has raised $1.2 million toward the $1.8 million needed to open the store – seeking its last major funding from local government (City of Greensboro, Guilford County)
    • Has received key support from NCDF, which came into the project early with a financing commitment



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