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Reimagining the Community Grocery Store

Mountain Peoples Storefront

By Amanda Marple and Joshua Lohnes

This story draws on research and findings from the forthcoming Grocer Toolkit developed in conjunction with the West Virginia Food and Farm Coalition and its three grocer partners: Public Market in Wheeling,WV; Rural Route 219 in Pocahontas Randolph counties, and The Blue Ridge Bee Company in Princeton, WV.

“The grocer is where the neighborhood speaks”
-Tina Campt “Black Feminist Futures and the Practice of Fugitivity - Barnard College as the Hele Pond McIntyre ‘48 Lecture.

A new Aldi just opened in the Sabraton neighborhood of Morgantown. Since mid-summer, long lines of masked customers wait their turn to enter and experience the chique retail environment and low food prices promised by the retail giant. Aldi is on track to become the third largest grocery chain in the United States behind Walmart and Kroger. The new store is the second to pop-up in Morgantown in the past 3 years, and speaks to the power of large branded corporations to generate desire and excitement, while progressively capturing more and more food dollars from eaters of all stripes. In West Virginia, as elsewhere, the food retail landscape has seen many changes over the past decade, changes that are highly uneven. While Morgantown now boasts two Aldis, two Walmarts, three Krogers and two Giant Eagles, many towns across the state are struggling to maintain or attract a single full service grocer. In places where population numbers are low and poverty rates are high, residents are losing access to grocers and must travel great distances to secure affordable food options. Many have come to rely on a mix of dollar stores and convenience stores to make ends meet, supplemented with regular stops at a local food pantry.

Grocery stores are the ends of a vast network of producers, manufacturers and suppliers that coordinate the supply of food available for sale in a given location, mostly with the goal of maximizing profits. According to Data USA, over 100,000 food retailers across the United States employ 3 million people and sell over $650 billion worth of product each year. The business decisions that these firms make, the suppliers they choose to work with, the wages and benefits that they offer their employees, and the ways in which they redistribute their profits are thus very important to the well-being of our communities. Beyond their economic impact, grocery stores play an extremely important role in determining access to food through the quantity and quality of products available on the shelves, and their level of participation in state-sponsored nutrition programs.

A ccording to a report published by Berne Declaration and EcoNexus, over the past 20 years the grocery industry has undergone significant changes. Mergers and acquisitions mirrored consolidations taking place across the agro-food sector, resulting in a few large firms with significant competitive advantages. The 20 largest food retailers in the United States now account for nearly 70% of the total market share, and the top 4 firms account for a staggering half of all sales, according to the USDA. The industry is also in the midst of a rapid transformation as new market actors emerge, such as Amazon, who purchased Whole Foods in 2017, are driving a restructuring of traditional brick and mortar business models through online sales, pick-up, and delivery. These trends foretell continued concentration of capital in the hands of a few key industry actors, and challenge the future viability of small, local, independent grocers.

In 2019 there were 2,072 food retailers operating in the state, yet only 39% of those were owned by businesses headquartered in West Virginia. Even as local grocery stores are disappearing, the past five years has seen the roll-out of small box retail chains like Dollar General (see below).

In light of these realities, it is crucial for local grocers to come together to strategize about ways to collectively address the competitive pressures associated with the consolidation of power, resources, and capital in the food retail space. It is also important to think about the customers that these markets serve. While locally owned grocers may be able to remain viable by serving niche markets of specialty products, there is a pressing need to find ways to provide healthy food access to all members of our rural communities. Though stores like Dollar General have dotted our landscape over the past five years, capturing vital state assistance dollars, in the process, these do not offer the array of nutritious foods that communities can rely on to thrive, nor do they foster a spirit of economic redistribution necessary to address the problem of poverty that drives food insecurity across the state.

Grocery for All: Alternative Grocery Enterprise Models

Everyone has to eat. Everyone has the right to access affordable, nutritious, and culturally appropriate foods.

Neighborhood based grocery businesses offer a myriad of positive impacts, especially in rural places with little or no access to an array of nutritious foods. Tending to hold true to their focus on community well-being, independent and alternative grocers extend beyond market transactions, in many cases, providing a “third space” where neighbors build relationships outside of their work and home lives, establishing connections and reinforcing community cohesion.

What kind of grocers can rural communities across Appalachia create to place the needs of people over the supposed imperatives of profit? Can such a realignment of values begin to address the uneven food retail environments facing our rural landscapes? Below are a few examples of independent and community-owned grocery models in the forthcoming Rural Grocery Toolkit.

Grocery Stores

co-op sign

Food cooperatives attempt to address the concentration of capital, lack of community control and democratic process associated with large grocery chains. Rural food cooperatives are successful when organizing to address a lack of access to fresh and healthy foods in their isolated communities. While these rural entities face significant start-up and operational challenges, effective democratic governance through community participation and material support encourage personal relationships that foster economic viability and a sense of commitment to place, in urban or rural contexts alike. Community engagement and support is critical for any retailer, but especially food cooperatives where the membership base and their participation drives the store’s success. Food co-ops call for democratic decision making within the business, allowing suggestions, comments, and actions from the membership and staff to be reflected in operations, purchasing, and community engagement.

Community-Owned Grocers

A community-owned grocer is financed and owned solely by residents of a defined and agreed upon geographic area. These owners tailor the store to meet the unique needs of its customers and can set prices deemed reasonable by the membership it is responsible to. Everyone in the community is given the opportunity to invest in the store by buying shares. However, caps are typically placed on shareholding to ensure no one voice dominates or governs all decision making. Due to their restricted geographic boundaries, these grocers often differ from cooperatives in terms of their ownership structure although their governance mechanisms are quite similar.

Municipality Subsidized / Owned Grocers

What could our communities look like if local municipalities stepped up to the food access plate in a big way? In rural places across the country, municipal and county governments are opening and subsidizing grocery stores to increase access to fresh and nutritious foods. In Baldwin, Florida for example the town council voted to approve the capitalization and operation of a grocery store after the only grocery store in the town closed. Employees are paid from the public purse, and profits from the store are reinvested into the city. As Mayor Sean Lynch states, “food access becomes almost like a utility that you have to have for the town to exist”. While this model is certainly non-traditional, it points to some innovative solutions available to communities confronting food access failures. Local governments have the ability to levy and redistribute resources to address food access issues in their communities. County commissioners and city councilors in West Virginia may want to embrace such a model over tax incentives that attempt to attract private grocers that do not reinvest their profits locally, nor often pay livable wages to their employees.

Using Established Food Access Organizations:

Pantry / Farmers Market Hybrid Grocer

Food pantries have emerged into key food access points in rural areas, processing cold storage and large food distributions to needy households across the state. These charities are funded drawing on a variety of resources and rely heavily on volunteers but all share commonalities of strong neighborhood bonds. Many are also linked to broader food access coalitions and regional organizations that coordinate access to charitable food supply chains. What if food charities also operated as hybrid grocery stores? Rather than merely distributing free food, could they also provide supplemental fruit, vegetable, dairy, protein, hygiene products for sale that may not be available for free on distribution day? Could such sales be integrated with the SNAP, WIC, or Farmer’s Market Voucher Programs that provide nutrition assistance to low income communities? By combining the capacity of established brick and mortar food pantries with the operation of a neighborhood grocer, new forms of community food access would surely emerge. While the practicalities of such a model are only now being experimented with, they offer potential to marry foodways that have historically not intersected with one another.

Community-owned grocers support rural economies by keeping profits from the store circulating within the local economy, ostensibly creating a benefit for the store to remain viable, while enhancing the well-being of the neighborhood and its residents. Cooperative, collective, and community approaches to grocery in rural Appalachia signal winds of possibility, hope, and economic transformation. We must have the audacity to believe that we can build a network of grocers that secures adequate food resources for all, creates community wealth, and establishes democratic and equitable workplaces.

Pressing issues of justice and equity in our food system need to be addressed when creating inclusive food access landscapes in our communities. We need to root these cooperative endeavors in addressing racism, including specifically anti-Black racism, white supremacy, classism, homophobia, transphobia, and all violent and exclusive aspects of oppression that show up in our American food system and society as a whole. We must work to develop diverse collectivities for food system transformation. Without rooting our work in anti-oppression, how can we truly transform our food access landscapes to be inclusive and representative of the amazing diversity of West Virginians and Appalachians? We must organize and build diverse collectives before developing cooperative and community enterprises, because that is how we can truly make other worlds possible.

In a place like West Virginia, where we can see the corporate landscape increasingly influencing the food choices available to rural folks, we must lean into opportunities to build grocery networks across the state that have our communities’ interests at the heart of decision making. What would our food landscape look like if networks of cooperative purchasing among independent grocers were established to compete with large grocery chains? How could our communities build wealth through the mechanism of profit redistribution incorporated into cooperative and collective grocer models? How can we leverage alternative grocery models to assist in transforming food supply chains, from producer to consumer and all the processing and transportation steps in-between? Building power within our communities to determine their food futures is the radical change that we need, as West Virginians, as Appalachians, and as people who rely on food every single day for nourishment, connection, and life.

As we develop these cooperatives, collectives, and people-powered networks, we must critically analyze who and how these enterprises and organizations serve our communities and whom is excluded. Who has the resources to open a new grocery store and how are those acquired? Who is represented and involved in building these collective and cooperative enterprises matters. As excitement and planning dollars flow toward these initiatives over the coming years, let’s build a food delivery system that works for everyone, not just those who have the privilege and means to build it.