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An oasis in a food desert, new food coop opens in Old North St. Louis

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 18, 2010 -Baskets and boxes overflowing with fresh fruits and vegetable aren't a common sight in the Old North St. Louis area off North Florissant near St. Louis Avenue. But that changed Saturday when a neighborhood group opened a grocery co-op at 2718 North 13th St., a block east of Crown Candy Kitchen, an area landmark.

Neighborhood residents checking out the goods inside the store seemed impressed by the plentiful summer squash and cucumbers, cabbage and zucchini, watermelon and turnips, lemons and tomatoes, and even fresh coffee beans. 

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Opening the co-op was quite an achievement in Old North, a community regarded as one of the city's so-called food deserts, places where full-service supermarkets are nonexistent and residents have to travel miles to buy fresh fruits, vegetables and other nutritious goods.

"The one thing people tell us over and over is that they want grocery services," says Sean Thomas, executive director of the Old North St. Louis Restoration Group.

Opening the store, he says, "is a huge relief. We've just birthed something. It means access to health foods for five neighborhoods in this part of the city."

Consumers can also become part owners of the co-op for a membership fee of $80. Aside from gaining equity, the fee allows people to get discounts on some products, to help elect the board of directors and to decide which products the co-op will stock.

Groups that helped with funding or provided services to make the grocery a reality include the Missouri Department of Agriculture, the Missouri Foundation for Health, city agencies, Washington University and the University of Missouri Extension program.

Kara Lubischer, a community development specialist for the extension program, says the agency helped Old North come up with a strategy for expanding food options through a farmers' market, a community garden and now the grocery co-op.

"This is the final piece of the strategy," she says. "It means access to affordable, healthy and local food where possible. This is an area where 40 percent of people lack access to cars, and others spend 40 minutes or more to get to stores as far as St. Louis County, taking their tax dollars to county locations. We want to help them keep money in their own community."

Agreeing with that notion was Julie Longyear, owner of an organic facial products company called Blissoma. For three years, she and her family have lived in the Hyde Park neighborhood, just north of the co-op, and have had to drive several miles to reach a grocery store.

"Gasoline is expensive and I dislike having to pay to drive to a Schnucks out of the neighborhood to buy food," she says. "I live within walking distance of the co-op, and I like keeping my tax dollars here. I also like to see my neighbors."

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Officials on hand for the opening included Jon Hagler, director of the Missouri Department of Agriculture. He said Gov. Jay Nixon and his wife Georganne Nixon had urged him early on to reach out to all communities and let the Department of Agriculture assist them in addressing food needs. He says farmers' markets and other alternatives for providing food continue to grow in Missouri. He said his agency helped the co-op get a federal Agriculture Department grant, adding that farmers' markets and co-ops are a trend the state will continue to support.

"Twenty years ago, there were virtually no farmers' markets," he says. "You also have community gardens, which is a wonderful way to provide food for farmers' markets. This grocery co-op is another good development. You can see people from all walks of life coming together inside the co-op. They are celebrating a community program together."

One farmer who is playing an important role in the co-op is Rusty Lee, owner of Lee Farms in Truxton, Mo. He also sells locally grown produce directly to urban families through a subscription-distribution service. Lee supplies fresh vegetables for Old North's 13th Street farmers' market, the food-coop and some other outlets.

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Lee arose at about 6:30 a.m. Saturday to load his refrigerated truck with goods and make the 71-mile trip to St. Louis. He says people in Old North tell him "the community wants, needs and supports" a farmers' market and co-op. "The support is the important thing. I think this program bodes well for the longevity of this community."

Lee says Truxton has 96 inhabitants, most of whom have no idea he makes a weekly trip to St. Louis to supply Old North and other locations. He said he hires local high school kids in the Truxton area for summer work and even allows some to make the trip to St. Louis to help make the deliveries.

"It's one example of a way to help them understand the connections between consumers and producers," Lee says of the teens.

But Lee isn't just selling to small outfits like the co-op. One of his new customers is Whole Foods. Watch out, California growers!

Funding for health reporting is provided in part by The Missouri Foundation for Health, a philanthropic organization whose vision is to improve the health of the people in the communities it serves.

Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.

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