It is often easier to find a Catholic in Baghdad than a supermarket in many American inner cities. New Orleans, post-Katrina, has been the proverbial poster child for the absence of affordable fresh food and affordable food products within an easy proximity of most urban neighborhoods.
National supermarket chains are often hesitant to open new outlets in dense urban areas, as they lack the area for large-scale parking lots and easily developable land for the traditional big box model of modern corporate groceries. Even financial incentives, like Tax inducement Funding (TIF) schemes, have had little success in drawing the Winn-Dixies and Albertsons to New Orleans.
Since Hurricane Katrina, the number of supermarket locations that chose not to reopen in the city has caused a real culinary crisis for many families — often poor and Black — that too often have to rely on overpriced canned food from corner stores and drugstores, products that usually carry a fifty percent or better mark-up over average grocery prices.
A group of local activists decided almost two years ago that they had to take action to correct this problem. Using the grassroots, food co-op model that has taken off in many American cities, they aim to bring full grocery services to the St. Roch, Tremé, Marigny, and Bywater neighborhoods.
As John Calhoun, head of the New Orleans Food Co-op, explained in an interview with The Louisiana Weekly, "We plan to open a 6,000 sq. ft. full-service grocery store early next year in the New Orleans Healing Center located at 2372 St. Claude Ave., at the corner of St. Roch and St. Claude. The New Orleans Healing Center will be a multi-purpose building with 17 tenants in the old Universal Furniture building. We will serve as the anchor tenant and provide what may well be that neighborhood's greatest need."
"There is currently a lack of grocery services," he continued, "in the Marigny, St. Roch, Bywater, 7th Ward, Tremé, French Quarter, Upper Ninth Ward, Lower Ninth Ward and Holy Cross neighborhoods. People in these neighborhoods are either driving across town or settling for less healthy options such as fast food, corner stores or drugstores. The Robert's on Elysian Fields was where many people in these neighborhoods shopped before Katrina, but no major grocery has re-opened in these neighborhoods since."
"We will be much more than just a conventional grocery store and expect to draw shoppers from the entire city of New Orleans. We plan to provide healthy food options at a fair price and whenever possible we will stock our shelves with products that are locally and regionally produced. I believe it is our commitment to local that will really set us apart from other groceries. There is an abundance of wonderful food produced in our region such as meats, dairy, seafood, eggs, rice, and produce. Local food is fresher, healthier, tastier, more environmental and better for our local producers and local economy."
What makes this model of a supermarket different from past attempts to bring groceries to inner city Orleans neighborhoods is the ownership structure. Rather than relying on distant corporate command, the people who patronize the store hold the stock.
As Calhoun explained, "What I like best about our grocery store are the owners! Co-ops are member-owned. We currently have 708 members and growing. This means that 708 people have made an equity investment in the NOFC and are all part owners of our business. This means that we are opening a grocery store that is served by the community it serves. Membership is open to everyone and requires only a $100 equity investment. This can be paid all at once or in monthly installments of $20. We also have a limited-income option of $25, which can also be paid in $5 monthly installments. We rely on member equity to provide some of the necessary capital to open our grocery store."
"Our store will be open to everyone, but it is the members that own it. Co-ops are democratically operated. Every member has 1 vote regardless of the equity investment they may have made. Once a year we elect our board of directors from the membership. Members will also receive some economic advantages such as member only sales and participation in our patronage refund program. This means that when our store is profitable that some of the profits are returned to the members based on how much they shop there."
Continue reading this article at The Louisiana Weekly »
• New Orleans Food Co-op
Christopher Tidmore is a contributing writer for The Louisiana Weekly.
Image from the New Orleans Food Co-op website.