A new sign went up this week at the once-abandoned shopping center on Phillips Avenue in East Greensboro.
That’s rare enough in one of the city’s poorest areas and itself cause for celebration.
But what the sign represents is much larger.
“Renaissance Community Co-Op,” it reads in bright red and green. “Healthy, Affordable, Community Owned.”
When it officially opens Nov. 5, it will be the area’s first real grocery store since 1998.
“No one would come, the stores just gave up on us,” said co-op President John Jones Wednesday. “But the community wanted it. They believed and they organized and it’s happening now.”
North Carolina is 9th in the nation in food insecurity according to the United States Department of Agriculture, which collects data on where people have the least access to fresh, healthy food.
Greensboro and High Point are, as a metropolitan area, one of the worst in the nation for food insecurity.
The USDA has a term for areas like Phillips Avenue. They call them food deserts – low income areas where at least 33 percent of the people are more than a mile away from a real grocery store or supermarket.
There are 24 food deserts in Guilford County – 17 in Greensboro and 7 in High Point.
More than 35,000 people in Guilford County have poor access to healthful food, according to USDA statistics. More than 18,000 of those are low-income.
Guilford’s food deserts are mostly in well-known low-income areas: south of Kivett Drive in High Point, most of east Greensboro and a large rural area near the outskirts of McLeansville.
For many in Greensboro, a city that has for years been trumpeting its economic recovery and the renaissance of its downtown, those numbers are a shock. Those people don’t spend a lot of time on Phillips Avenue.
WORLDS APART, SIDE BY SIDE
A ten minute drive from the new co-op, a few blocks from where the Grasshoppers play minor-league baseball at Yadkin Bank Park, that much vaunted center city’s resurgence is in full bloom.
Luxury condos are going up. No, not those. The newer, even bigger ones.
People sample local craft beers at new breweries like Joymongers and Preyer Brewing Company – ideal for pairing with dinner at Crafted: The Art of Street Food, where long lines of people wait to enjoy Thai red curry prawns and Korean meatballs.
But this week, on Phillips Avenue, Mara Richards was just trying to put together enough food for dinner at home.
To do that Richards, 24, had a friend watch her two sons, aged two and seven months. They wouldn’t have done well on the two mile walk in 90 degree heat to Kim’s Food Mart.
Kim’s is a barred-window gas station that also sells milk, eggs, bread and baby food – just enough actual grocery items to accept Electronic Benefit Transfer cards and Women, Infant and Children program benefits. Most of the store’s sales come from beer and cigarettes, sold in packs or loose, one at a time by the clerk.
As Richards headed in Wednesday afternoon a panhandler asked if she could spot him some change for a loosey.
Another confessed he was going through withdrawal, asked if she could spare a couple of bucks for a beer.
A gallon of milk costs $5.99 at Kim’s. A dozen eggs, $2.95.
Sorry, Richards said – she was going to need all her money today.
“It’s not the best selection you could have,” Richards said as she browsed. “But it’s what we’ve got nearby.”
Like many families in the area, Richards and her boyfriend don’t have a car. He depends on the bus to get to his job at a fast-food place on the other side of town. She cares for the kids at home.
But it’s hard to grocery shop for a family of four using the bus, a bicycle or the scooter they occasionally borrow from a neighbor.
The nearest real grocery stores — either the Food Lion on E. Cornwallis Drive or the Wal-Mart on Pyramid Village Boulevard — are each about three miles away.
The family grocery trips are usually on foot – up to Kim’s for a few items, then on to the nearby and similarly stocked Food Way Grocery, where it’s easier to win at the store’s bank of electronic sweepstakes games than to fill a plastic shopping bag with healthy food.
For household staples, Richards will usually walk a little further up to the Family Dollar that will share a shopping center with the new co-op. Again – not much fresh food to speak of. But for the essentials – toilet paper, household cleaners, frozen pizzas, mac and cheese – it’s probably the neighborhood’s best option.
At least until November.
A LONG TIME COMING
The new co-op will be a 10,000-square-foot store that will create 17 full-time and 14 part-time jobs, all paying more than $10 an hour.
Its first full-time hire, General Manager Michael Valente, is absolutely evangelical about the project
During on tour on Wednesday he beamed and bounced on the balls of his feet as he showed off the custom-made refrigerator cabinets – all super-efficient, locally made by a company in Lexington for less than the ready-made variety.
“Everyone we’ve worked with, from the people providing the coffee to the companies doing the shelves, believe in what we’re doing and they gave us great deals,” Valente said.
Valente spent a decade working in Food Lion stores before moving into the co-op world. He’s seen the grocery business contract, larger chains swallowing smaller regional ones and Wal-Mart Supercenters running neighborhood grocers out of business.
“A lof of the staff we’re going to have will be ex Food Lion people, ex Buy-Lo, ex Winn-Dixie,” Valente said.
“We’re about half the size of the typical Food Lion – but we’re concentrating on food sales, so we’re not giving over a lot of floor space to other things,” he said. “We’re actually working with the Family Dollar we share the shopping center with – they do some things well that we aren’t going to do, so together people can really get everything in one shopping center.”
That’s a goal the community has been working toward for more than six years, Jones said – after giving up on attracting another chain and looking toward opening a store itself.
It started with small meetings in local churches, passing the hat. Partners like the Fund for Democratic Communities and Self Help Ventures Fund later came on board – and the City of Greensboro itself played a vital role.
In 2008, the city spent about $1 million to buy the 9.5-acre property that includes the shopping center with an eye toward helping revitalize the area. That November, the city broke ground on the $3.5 million McGirt-Horton library, now one of the city’s newest and most impressive branches.
The city later sold the shopping center to Self Help and loaned the them $2 million to renovate it.
Co-op organizers were able to raise more than $2 million through donations, loans, grants and commitments – and have to date sold nearly 900 co-op memberships for $100 a piece.
In April of last year the city council approved a grant of $250,000 for the co-op and challenged the Guilford County Board of Commissioners to do the same.
But that’s where a persistent partisan divide over the project again became obvious.
DIVISION ON HUNGER
The Greensboro City Council’s Democratic minority pushed for the grant and got it passed.
The Guilford County commissioners, with its Republican majority, declined to follow suit.
“I applaud what they’re trying to do in their community and the way the community has come together to try and support the co-op,” Republican Commissioner Alan Perdue told the News & Record at the time. “However, I am concerned with the utilization of tax dollars for that project, considering the significant needs the county has related to essential services that we’re mandated to provide day to day.”
The County and its health department have funded and helped to organize other efforts to tackle the food desert problem over the years.
In 2012 the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention awarded North Carolina a $7.4 million Community Transformation Grant.
Guilford’s health department spent some of that money surveying small local convenience stores and curb markets like Kim’s and Foodway that fill the gap left by real grocery stores.
It found 80 percent of them carried enough food — staples like milk, bread and eggs — to qualify to accept EBT cards issued through food-assistance programs.
Only about 15 percent had any fresh produce.
What should be done about that, from the state to the local level, has become just another front in an ongoing partisan war over the role of government itself.
In May, during the state budget process, In the House Appropriations committee, a group of Republican lawmakers, led by Rep. Michael Speciale (R-Craven), tried to do away with a $300,000 program designed to make sure fresh fruits and vegetables make it to the shelves of convenience stores in food deserts.
The program, approved by the N.C. House last year, was designed to provide small grants to purchase coolers in places like Kim’s and Foodway, which often say they’d carry more fresh food but it’s too expensive to store properly.
During the debate last year, Speciale said people don’t go into corner stores to shop for real food anyway.
“If I go to the corner store, I want a honey bun and a Coke,” he said. “Have you been to these corner stores that have the fruits? I wouldn’t eat them if you paid me – they’ve been sitting there for awhile.”
Rep. Pricey Harrison (D-Guilford) said that comment is indicative of how “completely clueless” some state legislators have about the lives of the state’s poorest people.
“Unfortunately, I think that some of my colleagues don’t even recognize this as an issue,” Harrison said Wednesday. “Others think it’s just a rural issue, or just an urban issue. But it really affects everyone, everywhere.”
Many of those who do recognize the seriousness of food insecurity can’t get past the ideological divide over how it should be handled, Harrison said.
“The discussion we had during this last budget process on this issue, it was very telling about some of my colleagues’ beliefs on the role of government,” Harrison said.
During a heated debate in the appropriations committee, Speciale said if fresh produce could be effectively sold in those types of stores, it would be.
Speciale wanted to put the $300,000 toward economic development grants in rural areas instead.
His proposal ultimately failed 46-19 in the appropriations committee.
But the attempt to defund the program – and the persistent sentiment that it should be defunded – underscores an ongoing political tension over how to handle the problem.
“I think it’s an exciting thing that came from the community itself and it should be applauded,” Harrison said. “It’s really a model for what can be done and what the state can and should do is supplement those efforts.”
Greensboro City Councilman Jamal Fox agrees. He represents the area where the co-op will open in November. He was, a champion of the plan since before he actually ran for office.
“I have to take my hat off to the community, because they stayed resilient and they pushed for this,” Fox said. “This isn’t a Democrat or a Republican issue. Hunger is a people issue and we need to be doing what we can to help efforts like this, whether it’s the state of the local government.”
“A lot of people said this couldn’t be done, it would never be done,” Fox said. “But on November 5th it’s happening, and it’s going to be a big part of changing the community and the city. We did it.”