Building a Community-Owned Grocery Store

Residents plan cooperative grocery to solve problem of food access

Board members of the Community Grocery Cooperative: (left to right) Ginia Avery, Damian Bascom, and Clarice Manning. Photo: CGC

Providing Healthy Food Where Government and Business Have Fallen Short

People living east of the river exert more effort to obtain healthy food than those living in the rest of the District. A 2016 study by DC Hunger Solutions found that there were two grocery stores in Ward 7 and only one in Ward 8 – a combined three stores serving 164,000 residents.

While the District has debated the issue and formed a variety of programs to address it, the problem persists.

Tired of waiting for action, a group of Anacostia residents has decided to take food access into their own hands. In March 2016, the Community Grocery Cooperative (CGC) was incorporated by its founders, Ginia Avery, Clarice Manning, and Damian Bascom. Its mission is to provide better access to food and knowledge about health and nutrition as well as a timely process to get these needs addressed.

Those involved in the organization hope that this community-based solution will succeed where political and corporate efforts have fallen short.

Middle of a Desert

Experts in food access have coined the term food desert to describe those areas that have limited access to healthy food. Recently, the DC Policy Center determined that 46 percent of the District’s food deserts are located in Ward 8, with 31 percent in Ward 7. While other wards have ready access to a variety of full-service commercial grocers, Wards 7 and 8 have seen a decrease from seven stores in 2010 to three today.

“I have to cross water for just about anything I do. That’s ridiculous,” said Anacostia resident Adriana at a CGC planning meeting in July.

Living in a food desert means more than having to plan grocery trips in advance and spending a considerable amount of time to complete the task. It can determine the amount of fresh, healthy food purchased. It has an even greater impact on those without their own transportation. 

In addressing the issue of food access, a variety of policy proposals and initiatives have been presented, including legislation proposed by Councilmember Vincent Gray (D-Ward 7) that provides incentives for affordable anchor stores selling groceries and retail goods to locate to specific commercial areas of Wards 7 and 8. The bill remains under review.

For the Community, by the Community

Mobilizing government and waiting for less-than-enthusiastic corporations to respond is a long-term approach to a problem that residents say requires more immediate action. The founders of the CGC hope that the cooperative approach will provide more and quicker improvement while reaping the benefits of community involvement.

The cooperative has precedent in the District in many successful ventures, including Capitol Cabs, Nannie Helen Burroughs’ Cooperative Industries, and more recently the Martin Luther King Jr. Cooperative store at the Arthur Capper Public Housing Complex.

Avery says a cooperative is “an autonomous association of people, and these people voluntarily get together to meet their economic, social or cultural needs. And through this cooperative effort, their aspirations are realized in a democratically controlled business.”

The CGC will be a grocery store built for the community by the community.

Bascom says ownership is key. Unlike big-box stores, where decisions are made in other states for stores operating in the District,CGC will be owned and run by community members who have purchased shares in the cooperative. Many of them will also be employees. Regular meetings are where decisions will be made by CGC members and where the board of directors will engage with members and implement their decisions. “Decisions,” Avery says, “will be based upon what the community decides they want.”

Committees have been formed to help the board and membership on organization, steering, outreach and education, and procurement. An advisory committee composed of people with experience in cooperative development and retail grocery has also been established. Once the store begins operations, the general manager and employees will be part of the structure, answering to the owners of the CGC.

There will likely be opportunities to volunteer as well, both as grocery staff and as educators, in exchange for store credit. “We want everyone to have that access, regardless of income levels or whether they have income,” said Manning. She added that the CGC is “for profit. It is for the profit of the community. It’s for everybody to sustain themselves economically, and healthwise. Whatever needs to be done to better the lives of the people that are part of the coop,” she added.

Work to Do

Board members caution that they are still in the planning phase. The goal for the CGC’s initial location includes a 3,200-square-foot grocery store in addition to a cafe and kitchen education space. The store would carry fresh produce locally raised in the Chesapeake region and products made by local vendors. The cooperative said it envisions the space being not just a commercial destination but a community hub that facilitates dialogue and knowledge-sharing on food, health and nutrition, and other issues relevant to the community.

“We want it to be a place that enhances the community, from the knowledge, the vibration, and the access to the product, that they can just pick up something and be inspired,” says Bascom. “We want it to be a warm, collective space that has a lot of inspiration and energy when you come there.”

The board has had conversations with Michael’s Development Company about putting a fresh food market in the South Capitol Street Apartments, currently under construction in Bellevue at 4001 South Capitol St. SW. Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) 8D, which has a community development agreement with Michaels, has been supportive of this concept, Bascom says.

Ava Goldman, executive consultant with the developer, says that although the South Capitol Street Apartments could be completed as early as January 2019, it is still working with ANC 8D to determine details of occupancy for the community space. She said Michaels was in talks with many not-for-profits about use of the space, including CGC.

“I will say that we do have an application for a grant in with DMPED [Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development] for a fresh food market, and we would be delighted if we were selected,” Goldman explained. “That would really move the project forward.”

Whether it is located at South Capitol Street or not, the CGC store itself will probably require another two years’ work, a common timeline for coops, said Bascom. That time is necessary to secure financing and membership, establish the producer network in the Chesapeake, purchase equipment, and hire and train staff.

Builders Wanted

The cooperative is confident it can succeed with the talent and resources available in the neighborhoods east of the river. Those who are interested in making this dream a reality are welcome to join the board or one of the committees. Donations are also welcome, but volunteers are needed to help with the process of building the cooperative and recruiting members.

The board is especially interested in people with experience with cooperatives or retail grocery as well as grant-writing, business plan design, and clerical work. “The more people we get working together, the easier this will be,” explains Manning.

“We need collective input from everybody and we need collective experience to bring this forward,” Bascom adds. “It will be a place that people will come and feel empowered.”

Representatives from CGC will be at the Good Hope Family Community Day on Saturday, Aug. 19, from noon to 5 p.m., at Old Market House Square Park, 14th Street between U and V streets SE.

Email the Community Grocery Cooperative at communitygrocerycooop@gmail.comor find it on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/communitygrocerycoopdc.


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