Jordan GreenPhoto by Amanda Salter

by Jordan Green

Ernestine Surgeon, the resident council president at Claremont Courts in northeast Greensboro, has learned to be resourceful in the constant quest for nutritious, affordable food.

She’s diabetic. She has a 14-year-old autistic child. She’s a vegetarian. And she doesn’t drive.

She’s developed a number of creative workarounds.

“I walk around with fresh fruit and water in my bag,” she said.

The closest grocery stores are the Food Lion on East Market Street (2 miles away) and the Walmart Supercenter at Pyramid Village (2.7 miles away). In Surgeon’s situation, the best bet is to take advantage of every opportunity to pick up food from a grocery store here or a drug store there.

“Once you get to the food desert, you’re done,” she said. “You may be able to get water and nuts, which I eat because I like the protein.”

The curb markets that seem to proliferate wherever poor people live send a sad message.

“You’re telling the children you go straight from the juice to the soda to the beer,” Surgeon said. “It’s not that many of us that need to be drunk, drinking and inebriated.”

For a parent without a car, procuring food often involves working out a deal with another adult who has one and sometimes with another adult who is willing to provide childcare. To pay for those services, parents like Surgeon might pick up an item or two at the grocery for the person providing car service and childcare. It adds up, especially when your income is limited.

“It makes you feel so uncomfortable that you can’t go to your neighborhood to shop,” Surgeon said. “If I’m out here right now, should I need to go to the store, I might be riding with someone. They’ll drop you off and say, ‘Are you sure you don’t need something else?’ You want to say yes, but it’s their time that you’re taking away from their family, and you can’t give that back.”

The dream — Surgeon’s, her neighbors and, for that matter, people all across the city — seems so close, so tantalizingly within reach. The Renaissance Community Co-op grocery store is expected to open across the street from Claremont Courts at the Shops at Renaissance Plaza this fall.

“This has been a challenge,” Surgeon said. “I’m up for the fight. I’m not going to stop believing this is going to happen.”

The co-op has raised $1.2 million of the $1.8 million needed to open. Since January 2014, the number of people who put up $100 to become owners/members has leaped from 80 to 444; the organizers’ ultimate goal is 1,000 owners/members. (Disclosure: I’m an owner/member).

A funding gap of $583,076 remains. Organizers had planned to ask the city of Greensboro for $600,000 — broken out as a $200,000 grant and $400,000 loan. City staff balked, suggesting $100,000 instead. After Eric Ginsburg reported the discrepancy in Triad City Beat on Feb. 18, supporters who had become complacent about the co-op’s progress mobilized and let city council know how they felt. Co-op organizers met with council members and the city manager. They hammered out a compromise.

Ed Whitfield, one of the organizers, described the meeting as “fruitful” during a report to supporters at Laughlin Memorial United Methodist Church on Monday night.

“The city would like to come in with $250,000, and the city believes the county could come in with a $250,000 match because food is a public health concern,” he said. “And, as you know, public health is county function.”

Whitfield was quick to say the figure represented a “suggestion,” not a “promise”; nothing’s certain until city council votes on the financing deal. But if anyone wants to handicap, note that six out of nine council members were in the audience, along with the city manager, and none of them said anything to suggest the proposal was unreasonable or unlikely.

Whitfield added that he also spoke with a couple county commissioners. “I asked them: ‘Does this seem like it’s out to lunch?’” he recounted, “and they said, ‘It seems like it’s a possibility.’”

Mayor Nancy Vaughan expressed support for the project, while promoting the idea that the expense should be shared between the city and the county.

“We are really excited about the Renaissance Community Co-op,” she said. “We are committed to seeing this through…. Reach out to our counterparts across the plaza and encourage them to do the right thing.”

By the time Councilman Jamal Fox, who represents District 2 where the co-op will be located, took his turn at the mic, the crowd had dwindled significantly.

Photo by Amanda Salter
Photo by Amanda Salter

“Are you guys excited?” he asked, as if leading a pep rally. “We’re just a couple months away from the council taking that step of faith…. This is wonderful. When I saw this crowd it just touched my heart. This is what democracy looks like.”

Their elected representative received a polite response, but the residents’ real enthusiasm was reserved for longtime community leader Goldie Wells, who engaged the city manager in a short conversation about the appropriate time to put up banners.

“We have the banners to put up on Phillips Avenue that say, ‘The co-op’s coming! The co-op’s coming!’” Wells said. “But we’re waiting for the city to give us the go-ahead. And then we’ll be able to say, ‘It’s here! It’s here.’”

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