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Community Grocery Brings Affordable Healthy Food to Inner City

St. Louis, Missouri neighborhood co-op provides healthful options to an underserved part of the city

The Old North co-op, a community-run inner city grocery store, specializes in selling locally-grown produce.
The Old North co-op, a community-run inner city grocery store, specializes in selling locally-grown produce.

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U.S. First Lady Michele Obama has drawn national attention to the problem of "food deserts" - neighborhoods that may have plenty of McDonalds and other fast food restaurants, but no supermarket with fresh vegetables and other affordable, healthy foods.

Residents of the central-U.S. city of St. Louis are working to turn one inner-city neighborhood from "food desert" to oasis. They've opened a community-run grocery store - the first of its kind in the city.

Food desert

For the past decade, the Old North St. Louis neighborhood has had only one grocery store. But the dilapidated market carries mostly junk food, cleaning supplies and liquor. Its tiny produce section consists of a handful of sorry-looking vegetables and fruit.

Abandoned houses are a common sight in the Old North St. Louis neighborhood.
Abandoned houses are a common sight in the Old North St. Louis neighborhood.

Old North resident Etta Adams says 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. She says the nearest major supermarket is about 5 kilometers 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 40 percent of households in this mostly African-American, low-to-middle income neighborhood don't have access to a car.

"The idea for a grocery store came directly from the residents." Lubischer says people in the 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.

Almost all the work for the co-op project has been carried out by volunteers.

A diverse crowd fills the Old North Grocery Co-op on opening day.
A diverse crowd fills the Old North Grocery Co-op on opening day.

Food Oasis

On Saturday, a diverse crowd packed into the newly-renovated one-storey brick building, for the grand opening of the Old North Grocery Co-op.

"I'm very happy about it," said neighborhood resident Gudayzke. "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. "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. "One of the farmers we've been working with from the very beginning is a guy named Rusty Lee."

Local produce

Rusty Lee and his family raise vegetables and livestock on his farm in Truxton, Missouri, about 100 kilometers west of St. Louis.

Farmer Rusty Lee supplies fresh meat and produce to the Old North Grocery Co-op.
Farmer Rusty Lee supplies fresh meat and produce to the Old North Grocery Co-op.

He 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 Lee's efforts to bring fresh produce to her neighborhood. "For us peoples that don't have transportation and stuff, you know, that's a big improvement for us."

Without a car, Morant has had to depend on friends and neighbors to take her grocery 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. I'm glad of that. I'm proud of it."

Organizers stress the co-op is open to all shoppers - not just members.

But in St. Louis, a community-run grocery is an untested concept. Its survival may depend on how willing area residents are to change their shopping and eating habits.

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