From Food Desert to Food Sovereignty: The Story of the Renaissance Community Cooperative


A few months ago, on September 8th, 2016, Renaissance Planning and Self-Help co-hosted and organized a listening and learning session with owners of the newly-launched Renaissance Community Cooperative (RCC) at the McGirt-Horton Branch Library in Greensboro, North Carolina.

The RCC is a 10,530-square foot, full service community-owned cooperative grocery store located in the Renaissance Shops in Greensboro’s northeast neighborhood. Approximately 50 attendees (including participants from the cities of Greensboro and Charlotte; the Housing Authority of Winston-Salem; students and academics from UNC Chapel Hill, North Carolina A&T, UNC Charlotte, and NC State University; US EPA; and local organizing groups such as Neighbors for Better Neighborhoods, Cleveland Avenue Transformation Team)  were present to learn more about starting a community food co-op. Along with presentations from the Fund for Democratic Communities (F4DC) and the Center for Community Self-Help,  RCC board members and owners described their five-year journey from food desert to food sovereignty.

A Q&A with presenters including Dave Reed and Sohnie Black of the Fund for Democratic Communities; John Jones and Eleanor Graves, Renaissance Community Co-op Board Chair and Treasurer; and Steve Saltzman, Center for Community Self-Help (Photo Credit: Renaissance Planning)

A Q&A with presenters including Dave Reed and Sohnie Black of the Fund for Democratic Communities; John Jones and Eleanor Graves, Renaissance Community Co-op Board Chair and Treasurer; and Steve Saltzman, Center for Community Self-Help (Photo Credit: Renaissance Planning)

Northeast Greensboro: A Neighborhood in Need

Northeast Greensboro followed a similar development trajectory to many urban residential areas in the American South. Many neighborhoods date to the 1930s, and were originally housing for white mill workers in the textile and tobacco industries that once dominated the southern economy. Over time, these neighborhoods aged, factories and warehouses were shuttered, the white population relocated to new suburban communities, and these residential neighborhoods became home to Greensboro’s African-American population. A chronic lack of public investment has left these neighborhoods substantially under-resourced. Additionally, a large, outdated public housing community of approximately 1,000 residents has contributed to a continuing cycle of disinvestment. There is a substantial lack of services and amenities in the neighborhood and nearby areas, meaning the city’s most vulnerable residents have the least access to their most basic needs- particularly fresh, healthy food.

Building Capacity to Drive Change

In 1998, as part of a nationwide trend of consolidation, the Winn Dixie Supermarket that was located within northeast Greensboro closed and this community that already struggled with food access and affordability issues “officially” became a food desert. The Healthy Food Financing Initiative defines a food desert as “a low-income census tract where a substantial number or share of residents has low access to a supermarket or large grocery store.” In response, residents organized and formed the group “Concerned Citizens for Northeast Greensboro.” At the same time (the late 1990s), the neighborhood was also fighting to prevent a landfill from locating in the neighborhood. Residents organized again and formed an environmental justice coalition. These two efforts resulted in the building of real and influential grassroots political power. This power would become a boon when these same residents found themselves lobbying to develop their own grocery store.

Exploring Alternatives

Eventually, the City of Greensboro purchased the property where the Winn Dixie was formerly located to develop a new branch of the city library system. In an effort to help provide residents with some food options, they also negotiated a below-market, long-term lease with the Family Dollar store that is also located on the property, in exchange for a guarantee that the Family Dollar would carry food. Unfortunately, the food available was expensive and fresh options remained limited.  Although citizen groups continued to build political clout, residents still did not have a grocery store. After a potential deal with a Sav-a-Lot store fell through, resident organizers began expanding their thinking about what could be possible in northeast Greensboro.

The vacant Winn Dixie and the site of the new Renaissance Community Coop and renovated Renaissance Shops. (Photo Credit: F4DC)

The vacant Winn Dixie and the site of the new Renaissance Community Coop and renovated Renaissance Shops. (Photo Credit: F4DC)

Field Trip!

Supported by F4DC, a group of interested residents took a trip to tour the Company Shops Market in Burlington, NC to get a better understanding of how a cooperative grocery store model works and how it could potentially be applied in northeast Greensboro. Overall, the group came back home feeling excited and energized, but still hesitant and unsure if they could pull this off. Some residents who went on the tour were a little concerned about the products being sold at the Company Shops Market- they didn’t “look” like northeast Greensboro, they were too pricey, the brands weren’t recognized, the products carried weren’t the ones they desired, there was too much of a focus on alcohol, and the whole cooperative model seemed too complex to try and replicate.

On the other hand, some residents came back feeling a sense of purpose, they were amazed that “regular people” could build something like a grocery store and they found the idea of communal ownership exciting. In the end, a group of champions emerged, who were confident that, while the cooperative model might be complex, it was still doable. And they knew that, as owners, they could be sure the store would carry the brands and products their friends and neighbors would want and need.

From Vision to Reality

After the trip to Vermont, a 12 person steering committee was formed to research the feasibility of developing a cooperative grocery store in northeast Greensboro. This group commissioned a market study, held monthly meetings, solicited community input, and- critically- began “passing the hat” at every meeting. This informal fundraising eventually turned into the collection of formal ownership shares at $100 each (which can be paid as a lump sum or in monthly installments- no amount is too small; no payoff time is too long). The RCC currently has approximately 865 owners. In addition to raising funds, the steering committee laid out a mission statement for their cooperative model:

The RCC will create a democratically owned and controlled grocery store in Northeast Greensboro that provides all of Greensboro with healthy foods at affordable prices and has a commitment to locally sourced foods, community education, and dignified jobs. 

The Numbers Speak for Themselves

In order to determine whether or not a grocery store would be feasible in northeast Greensboro, the steering committee commissioned a market study. This study found that residents located within two miles of the proposed store site spend $1,343,365 on groceries every week. This figure grabbed some people’s attention! In order to be successful, the store would need to capture just under 5% of the market share.

Ongoing renovations in the interior of the RCC space in September 2016. (Photo Credit: Renaissance Planning)

Ongoing renovations in the interior of the RCC space in September 2016. (Photo Credit: Renaissance Planning)

The financial impact of the co-op on the community was estimated as well. Some key figures include:

  • 28 jobs created by co-op
  • $2 million in salaries returned to the community in three years/ $16 million in salaries and benefits returned to the community in 20 years
  • $1.6 million in profit re-invested in the community in 20 years.
Ongoing exterior renovations at the RCC in September 2016. (Photo Credit: Renaissance Planning)

Ongoing exterior renovations at the RCC in September 2016. (Photo Credit: Renaissance Planning)

Funding Food

While the market study, even with conservative estimates, suggested strong demand for a grocery store in the northeast Greensboro neighborhood, the fledgling owners still needed to figure out how they could “raise the barn,” so to speak. The existing building (which had sat vacant and neglected for many years) needed renovations and retrofitting to function efficiently, employees needed to be hired, owners needed training, and shelves needed to be stocked.

With the assistance of community development finance experts Self-Help, RCC’s board tapped into a variety of funding resources to chart a sustainable and fiscally responsible path forward. These sources are included below. 

 
 

Stocking the Shelves

One issue that was important to RCC owners was having the right type of products in their store. When the group toured the Company Shops Market in Burlington, Vermont, they were concerned that the brands carried by that store were not ones that would be familiar to the residents in northeast Greensboro.

Stocked shelves with nationally-recognized brands at the RCC. (Photo Credit: Renaissance Community Cooperative)

Stocked shelves with nationally-recognized brands at the RCC. (Photo Credit: Renaissance Community Cooperative)

But, after doing some research, RCC owners learned that several “conventional” grocery distributors existed who could provide the recognizable products that owners wanted to stock and residents wanted to purchase.  RCC ultimately opted to contact with a local North Carolina wholesaler who could not only supply national and regional brands but who also offered additional business support activities and benefits such as marketing, equipment discounts, training for employees and management, and an integrated inventory and ordering system. This wholesaler will provide 80-85% of the products being sold by RCC; the remainder will come from a variety of local sources.

Unity and Blind Faith

On November 4 and 5, 2016 – after five years of planning and 18 years without a grocery store in northeast Greensboro – the RCC celebrated its grand opening. The store has been working through a soft opening since mid-October and rightfully rejoicing in every milestone achieved, compliment received, and challenge overcome. As news of the owners’ achievements have spread, RCC board members have even been traveling to speak to other communities interested in adapting this type of cooperative grocery store model to their unique contexts.

RCC founders celebrate the store’s soft opening and welcome owners with big smiles on October 14, 2016. (Photo Credit: Renaissance Community Cooperative)

RCC founders celebrate the store’s soft opening and welcome owners with big smiles on October 14, 2016. (Photo Credit: Renaissance Community Cooperative)

The event facilitated by Renaissance Planning on September 8th was one of these opportunities. Attendees from Charlotte, Winston-Salem, and other communities were there not only to hear about what RCC had achieved but to learn if there were ways that this model of community development could be applied in their own communities.