St. Louis, MO –
Some food co-ops are exclusive, pricey places, where health-conscious members stock up on soy milk, whole grains, and organic vegetables.
But residents of one St. Louis neighborhood are taking the co-op concept to the inner city, bringing ordinary, affordable groceries -- including fresh, local produce -- to an underserved community.
For the past decade, the Old North St. Louis neighborhood has had only one grocery store. It carries mostly junk food, cleaning supplies, and alcohol. A handful of sorry-looking vegetables and fruit make up its tiny produce section.
Old North resident Etta Adams says up until now, she's had to do her shopping outside the neighborhood. "Well there haven't been nothing over here - too much to - you know, to shop from."
Kara Lubischer is a community development specialist with the University of Missouri Extension. "Researchers would call Old North St. Louis a food desert, which means there's no immediate access to fresh, affordable healthy foods."
Lubischer says Old North has plenty of fast food restaurants and convenience stores, but the nearest chain supermarket is a few miles away. "Which doesn't sound that far if you have a car, but it sounds very far if you have to get on a bus, and you have to carry your week's worth of groceries home with you."
About forty-percent of households in this mostly African-American, low-to-middle income neighborhood don't have access to a car.
Lubischer says people in neighborhood liked the idea of a food co-op: a community-owned grocery, where members would have a say in how the store would be run, and what products it would carry.
On Saturday, a diverse crowd packed into the old Meyer Horseradish Company building on North 13th Street, for the grand opening of the Old North Grocery Co-op.
Neighborhood resident Gudayzke said he feels good about the new store. "I'm very happy about it. I don't know whether this will be my main stopping point or not, but it certainly does give me another option."
Luz Maria Evans agreed. "I mean it's great because now we can have something convenient to, to make the shopping's list. Everything you need. Near."
Old North St. Louis Restoration Group director Sean Thomas says the co-op will sell a variety of foods and household items. Food stamps are accepted too.
"This store will be structured to suit the tastes and desires of the community who are here, as well as other customers who might come from outside the neighborhood."
Thomas says the store will also rely as much as possible on local producers.
Rusty Lee and his family raise vegetables and livestock on their farm in Truxton, about 70 miles west of St. Louis.
Lee has recruited other local farmers to help him supply the co-op with fresh produce and meat. "We saw it as an opportunity to help somebody out, to help ourselves out. It's a market that no one has really been servicing."
Old North resident Claretha Morant is grateful for Rusty Lee's efforts to bring fresh produce to her neighborhood. Without a car, she's had to depend on friends and neighbors to take her shopping in other parts of the city. "And now, I can just go on my own, you know, just get the bus and go on my own now. And I'm glad of that. I'm proud of it."
Organizers stress the Old North Grocery Co-op is open to all shoppers - not just members. But a community-run grocery is an untested concept here. Its survival may depend on how willing area residents are to change their shopping and eating habits.