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The following article by Alex Woodward originally appeared in the Gambit on Dec. 28, 2009.
The corner of St. Roch and St. Claude avenues is a food desert. The neighborhood lacks healthy and affordable foods and groceries and is pockmarked with fast-food restaurants and corner stores. But if you open the door of the former Universal Furniture megastore, with its logo still stuck to the building’s side, walk past a few art installations and through the door on your left, there’s hope.
The New Orleans Food Co-Op held its first market day on Nov. 22 inside the New Orleans Healing Center, the furniture store-turned-community center that houses an art space, workshops, the New Orleans Police Department’s 5th District, and now, a weekly buyer’s club for co-op members. The center’s across-the-street neighbor, the St. Roch Market grocery, remains closed and in disrepair. But once a week, the co-op makes boxes of fresh local produce from the Hollygrove Market & Farm and other healthy, natural foods available — to its members.
“We can’t retail to the general public right now, but our members are really excited,” says co-op board of directors president Michael Smith. “It’s something they’ve been asking, been waiting to do. It’s a long and complicated, difficult organizational and fundraising project to open and run a community-owned grocery store. Most people became active and engaged with the co-op because of interest to get healthy food now, and access to local, healthy foods in the neighborhood. This is Phase 1 … until we get the grocery store open.”
While the co-op is still planning for 2010, the Sunday market offers a temporary solution for the remainder of 2009 and the beginning of next year.
“There are two things happening,” says co-op board member John Calhoun. “We’re finding a way to offer a much-needed service now, especially in that neighborhood where there just aren’t healthy, affordable groceries — or just groceries. I hear about people doing their shopping at Walgreen’s or driving across town, and that’s affecting people’s health.
“It’s great for outreach; people get to know who we are and learn about our plans. They associate the co-op with food and not just meetings and fundraisers.”
The Healing Center, which opened this summer, reached out to the co-op to offer it a home base while the center undergoes renovations, which are expected to start by February. Plans include space for the 5,500-square-foot full-service grocery store, which Smith hopes to see in place by November. The grocery would offer “local and natural, healthy foods and products and some conventional items,” he says.
For now, the Sunday market is only open to the general public on the condition shoppers make their payment to join the co-op. Membership requires a $100 capital equity investment, which allows members to participate and give equal voice in board elections, run for positions on the board and vote on other issues. Members also can enroll in a five-month, $20-a-month plan, and low-income members can apply for a five-month, $5-a-month plan. “We’ve tried to open it up a bit and not make it too prohibitive,” Smith says.
Before the Sunday market opened, the co-op offered a once-a-month buyer’s club, where members could preorder bulk purchases via the co-op’s Web site and divvy the orders among members. “But not many people were utilizing it,” Calhoun says. “They had to drive to a location, order in bulk … but it was better than nothing. It gave people a start in what it’s like to work cooperatively.”
Members told the board a grocery was needed, and the co-op took the Healing Center’s offer.
“Having a co-op fit into (the center’s) mission as far as a ‘healing’ center,” Calhoun says. “That was a leap for us, having a real live grocery store, so we decided to go for it.”
The co-op first organized in fall 2002 through a series of community meetings and through meetings with the then-startup New Orleans Food & Farm Network. Public meetings stirred interest, followed by fundraising efforts and volunteer support. “There was a lot of excitement,” Calhoun says. “People wanted a co-op for various reasons: to support healthy food, support local food productions, or to keep money local and support the local economy, or they just wanted an alternative. People wanted a place where good food was affordable, not just to some people but to everyone.”
A co-op wouldn’t be just a neighborhood store — with each member holding a stake in the market. It literally belongs to them.
“You can shop and go, ‘This is my store, not because it’s down the street where I live,’” Calhoun says.
Organizers introduced a buyer’s club and by 2005 developed a business plan and secured enough capital to open a storefront within a couple years on Elysian Fields at Chartres Street. Hurricane Katrina disrupted the co-op’s plans and forced it to start from scratch, with members and organizers no longer in town. The co-op partnered with the Crescent City Farmers Market to offer mobile markets out of a tractor-trailer and later reintroduced the buyer’s club.
Now with a home inside the Healing Center and more than 500 members behind them, co-op organizers are working on preliminary store designs and gathering market research. Smith and Calhoun look forward to the co-op grocery’s opening, which market coordinator Elisa Miller says is now a matter of “needing more time than money.” Providing for a neighborhood with few healthy options couldn’t come soon enough.
Inside the market, a few visitors measure sunflower seeds, cornmeal and walnuts from bulk bins. Citrus from Braithwaite is in one box, and fresh baguettes are in another. There’s a debate over mustard green origins. Miller does the accounting in scrapbooks.
“We’re learning how to serve New Orleans,” she says.
This article originally appeared Dec. 17, 2009, in New Orleans City Business, written by Emilie Bahr.
The long-in-the-planning New Orleans Food Cooperative took a significant step forward last month when it began operating a Sunday afternoon “buyers club” out of the former Universal Furniture building at 2372 St. Claude Ave., the eventual site of a planned multipurpose healing center and full-service grocery store.
Since Nov. 22, those with active co-op memberships have been able to purchase between noon and 6 p.m. each Sunday such staples as fresh produce, laundry detergent and dog food from the store, one of the few outlets where such items are available in the neighborhood.
“It’s extremely exciting,” said co-op President Michael Smith, who called the move an “intermediate step” on the road to opening a 5,500-square-foot, seven-days-a-week, full-service grocery store. Representatives anticipate opening the store by the end of 2010.
“People are in need of food in the neighborhood,” Smith said. “It’s crucial.”
Calling the recently-begun Sunday buyers club “phase one,” Smith said that as soon as January, the co-op hopes to participate in an outdoor market with local vendors and farmers and other tenants of the forthcoming healing center.
The idea behind a food cooperative is that members, rather than a company, have ownership of the for-profit venture.
“We’re basically selling the ownership of a grocery store for $100,” Smith said, referring to the membership fee. “From the point of view of the consumer, there’s very little difference” between a food cooperative and a conventional grocery store.
Smith said there are currently 180 food cooperatives in operation across the United States, but none in Louisiana.
In order to make the New Orleans project viable, the cooperative needs to continue to fill its membership ranks. Smith said the New Orleans Food Cooperative has roughly 550 members but requires 1,000 under the formula included in its business plan.
“We cannot make this work without a certain critical mass of membership,” he said. “(Membership fees represent) the capital equity that we have in hand that helps us with our business loans.”