A faith-based initiative seeks to provide affordable and wholesome food in a high-need part of Winston-Salem, but location and sourcing could be challenges.

The Rev. Willard Bass and Gary Williams are interested in opening a cooperative grocery in Winston-Salem to respond to the need for affordable, quality food in food deserts.

Bass is executive director of the Institute for Dismantling Racism, a nonprofit housed in Green Street Church primarily known for facilitating anti-racist trainings for large institutions. With the Institute for Dismantling Racism as sponsor of the cooperative, Bass called on Gary Williams, his associate from the Ministers Conference of Winston-Salem & Vicinity, to lead the effort.

“We’ll put a plan in place, and we’ll start to offer memberships,” said Williams, a minister who lives in Mocksville. “The members will vote on who the directors are and elect a board. At that point, my work will have concluded if I’ve done my job on the front end.”

Williams and Bass acknowledged that their initiative, called the Share Cooperative, is in many ways modeled on Renaissance Community Co-op in northeast Greensboro, whose soft opening is expected to take place in the first half of October with a grand opening scheduled for Nov. 15.

“What our niche will be is affordable, wholesome and fresh foods,” Williams said. “A traditional food cooperative, they’re appealing to a clientele who are natural-food enthusiasts, organic-food enthusiasts. Cost is not an issue. Because we are catering to lower-income communities and a lower-income clientele, value will be important.”

The Share Cooperative identified a storefront in the West Salem Shopping Center on Peters Creek Parkway as an ideal location by overlaying a map of US Department of Agriculture-designated food deserts with a map of shopping centers targeted for improvement through the city of Winston-Salem’s Revitalizing Urban Commercial Areas program. Williams said project leaders like the West Salem Shopping Center because it’s centrally located and already hosts a number of viable businesses that would omplement a food market. Green Street Church and the storefront that Williams and Bass are eyeing are located in the West Salem neighborhood.

A distressed neighborhood just across Business 40 from BB&T Ballpark and bracketed between Peters Creek Parkway and South Broad Street, West Salem roughly mirrors the demographics of the city: 64.3 percent white, 30.6 percent black and 16.1 percent Latino. Its poverty rate — 42.4 percent — is well above the 24 percent rate for the city as a whole, and median family income is about three quarters of the city average. Yet West Salem is nowhere near as poor as neighborhoods to the east that straddle US Highway 52, where the poverty rate exceeds 60 percent.

The cooperative is applying for a community grant from the city of Winston-Salem to pay for a feasibility study and a marketing study in the 2017-2018 funding cycle. Winston-Salem Community & Housing Development Director Ritchie Brooks said the co-op applied for a city grant in the most recent funding cycle and was turned down.

The site is about two miles southeast of a cluster of high-end groceries, including Publix, Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, and a mile and a half north of the more affordable Compare Foods on Silas Creek Parkway. Bass said that the proximity to Compare shouldn’t be a deterrent, reasoning that in affluent areas, grocery stores are often clustered together. In addition to being part of a food desert, Bass said that one of the advantages of the location for the food co-op is its proximity to the ballpark, where a boom in luxury housing is creating a potential clientele with high incomes to help support the venture.

Williams said cooperative leaders plan to start canvassing residential areas around the proposed site in November to conduct what he called a “visible customer discovery.” The leadership of Share Cooperative has also looked to Renaissance Community Cooperative as a model.

“The things they’ve shared with us is that community organization is important,” Williams said.

Dave Reed is a cooperative business developer with the Fund for Democratic Communities, a Greensboro-based foundation that provided technical assistance to Renaissance Community Cooperative. Although the timeline from inception to implementation spans about five years, the community organizing that laid the foundation actually dates back to 1998, Reed said.

“For Renaissance Community Cooperative, what was critical to the success was the high level of organizing within the community,” he said. “The Renaissance Community Cooperative really has been built on the back of some deep community organizing that has been going on in northeast Greensboro that really started with the closing of the Winn-Dixie grocery store in 1998. Within weeks of the store closing, there were neighbors meeting to discuss how to deal with it. That community successfully prevented the re-opening of the White Street Landfill, and the co-op grew out of that. While this is end of a five-year effort, it’s really the culmination of an 18-year struggle.”

Williams said he sees Share Cooperative as a hybrid of Renaissance and the various farmers’ markets that have sprung up around Winston-Salem, with a commitment to sourcing food from local farmers and community gardens. Notwithstanding challenges experienced by other markets, Williams said he’s confident the co-op will be able to buy enough produce to make the partnership work for farmers and gardeners while also keeping prices low enough for consumers.

Reed said when Renaissance Community Cooperative started looking for distributors, local sourcing was only part of their criteria. They ended up choosing Merchants Distributors, a wholesale grocery store distributor based in Hickory, because they’re a North Carolina company and because they treat their workers well.

“They’re in the process of building out a local food distribution program,” Reed said. “The guy who runs their produce section came and met with us. He was in the midst of meeting with all the agriculture cooperative extensions. He was meeting with farmers and asking, ‘What are you growing, and can we help you grow the stuff that we are selling?’ The RCC — because we’re going to be sourcing a substantial amount of product, we’re going to have access to that.”

While the new co-op in Greensboro will buy packaged items like barbecue sauce directly from local producers, fresh produce is a tougher prospect because of the challenge of scalability.

“When it comes to fresh produce coming from local farmers, it’s going to be difficult to get that on store shelves,” Reed said. Food systems are complex, and finding a way to serve communities that have been failed by capitalism presents a tricky balancing act, he said.

“We exist within a food system that is already created,” he said. “We — and by we, I mean communities that are interested in figuring out a better way to feed ourselves — need to create sustainable entities within the existing food system but disrupt it enough to get a better outcome for their constituents.”

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