Exploring Innovations in Healthy Fresh Food Access in Rural Communities
February 11th, 2020
Members of Hope’s Community Economic Development team and Hope Policy Institute, along with local leaders from towns throughout the Mississippi Delta and staff from partner organizations, visited grocery stores that are using innovative models to bring affordable, fresh, healthy food to urban and rural food deserts throughout the South. The group visited Carver Neighborhood Market in Atlanta, Georgia which combines a neighborhood café and a small grocery store and Wright’s Market in Opelika, Alabama that delivers fresh groceries to rural communities using online ordering and a refrigerated van.
Throughout HOPE’s work in these small communities, residents and community leaders have identified the need for access to fresh healthy food as a priority. In many towns throughout the Mississippi Delta, access to fresh food is limited. A recent study by Hunger Free America found that more than 1 in 10 working Mississippians are food insecure with more than 500,000 people in Mississippi experiencing hunger.
Many local grocery stores have closed forcing residents to travel to larger neighboring communities for food. For some, the travel is an inconvenience, but for others like those residents who lack reliable transportation, it is an obstacle to access. In addition to the effects on residents, the disinvestment that occurs when local businesses close is also detrimental to the local economy and tax base. As part of working with the residents to address this issue, HOPE identified grocery stores that are using innovative means to meet the needs of their neighborhoods and communities and planned a trip for community leaders, HOPE staff, and individuals from partner organizations such as Delta Hands for Hope, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Mississippi Center for Justice and the Mississippi State University Extension Service.
The group first visited Carver Neighborhood Market, a small nonprofit grocery store and café in South Atlanta. The café and market was started and is operated by Focused Community Strategies in cooperation with neighborhood residents. While South Atlanta is located in an urban environment, the neighborhood faced challenges with food access similar to those faced by communities in the rural Delta, including disinvestment via business closures, low-wealth residents, and transportation challenges.
The group also visited Wright’s Market in Opelika, Alabama. The market is a locally owned full-service grocery store that is proactively addressing food access issues in their surrounding area. Wright’s provides complimentary shuttle service to and from the grocery store for nearby residents, offers online ordering and grocery delivery to rural communities in a three-county area, and is participating in the SNAP online ordering program currently being piloted by the USDA.
Through presentations by and discussions with the operators of these unique stores, participants learned about the challenges faced by grocery stores in underserved areas and some of the innovative ways to address them. These include:
Suppliers for small stores
Wholesale grocery providers have minimum weekly ordering requirements that do not allow small stores to establish supplier relationships and/or purchase goods at a competitive price. Carver Market has addressed this challenge by creating a collaborative purchasing partnership with an existing store and wholesaler in their region. Their nonprofit model allows them to offset the cost of transporting goods from their retail partner while maintaining competitive pricing for their customers.
Small profit margin in grocery industry and competition with larger stores
Carver Market addresses this concern by pairing their grocery store with a coffee shop/café that provides a space for the community to gather, drives customer traffic with special local menu items, and sells prepared food and coffee which improves overall profit margins.
Transportation for customers in rural areas
Wright’s Market has addressed this challenge by purchasing a refrigerated van (through a state-supported grant program) to deliver online grocery orders to surrounding rural towns.
Financing the large upfront costs of grocery stores
Both stores shared information about the upfront cost challenge of a new store, including the high cost of equipment such as refrigerators and freezers, and stocking the store with sufficient inventory. This challenge can be addressed in part by Healthy Food Financing programs like those HOPE administers.
While some challenges remain, the community leaders on the trip were inspired to envision new ways to overcome them as they work toward bringing affordable, fresh, healthy food to their neighborhoods. HOPE will continue to support their efforts and advocate for programs that will improve fresh food access throughout the Deep South.