A recent AP investigation found major grocery store chains across the country fail to provide food for areas that need it most. In Rhode Island some fifty-thousand people don’t have easy access to healthy foods, and most of them are in Providence county.
A small group of locals have been trying to open a grocery store on their own, but it’s taken a decade to get the project off the ground.
It takes imagination to envision a grocery store on the dusty, vacant lot behind a big bank on the West Side of Providence. But that’s exactly what Phil Trevvett does as he approximates the size and shape of phantom deli counters and shelves.
“So this would probably be the meat or cheese and dairy area,” said Trevvett. “We’ve entered from the street. We’re pretty far back into the store now, looking almost at the back of the retail operation.”
Trevvett is part of a group that planning to open this co-op grocery store, called Urban Greens.
With a co-op, you buy-into the business, sort of like membership in a club. You won’t have to be a member to at Urban Greens to shop there. But you do get some benefits like a vote in board elections or store credit if the store is successful each year. It doesn’t rely on high profits said Trevvett.
“What makes a co-op sustainable is that its customers are also its owners, that there’s investment in the store from the very people who are shopping there.”
The group has finally secured a space in the city’s west side; an area in need of a full service grocery store. But there’s a hitch. Urban Greens needs money to build this store. Money that’s not coming from a corporate grocery chain. Trevvett himself is a volunteer (like most of the people involved in this project). His real job is in the bio-medical field.
This is why it’s taken 10 years to get to this point. The group now has a location and a 2017 target open date. The store will be the ground floor of a larger building with condos or apartments above. Urban Greens is expected to chip in 1.2 million towards the project. Then they need to generate enough money to keep it running.
Bonnie Hudspeth, a Vermont-based food co-op consultant, said it may be to their advantage that Urban Greens is not connected to a larger chain.
“Many of us in New England have experienced grocery stores leaving our community almost overnight,” said Hudspeth. “When the community that you live in isn’t generating enough profits for the business, and the business’ bottom line is profits, the corporate headquarters is like ‘ok shut this one down.’
But Urban Greens doesn’t have a corporate headquarters. They’ll be run by investor-owners, theoretically locals, who’ll also shop there. The store will still need to cover operating costs. To do that it will need to appeal to a diverse population, where trendy bars are popping up next to abandoned buildings.
That means hanging signs in English and Spanish, and stocking shelves with foods that reflect a variety of cultural eating habits, said Trevvett.
“The other point is making both those local foods and healthy foods, more accessible to the full population,” said Trevvett. “Not just middle class, upper-middle class, and upper class individuals.”
It’s a fairly utopian vision: a neighborhood grocery store that serves residents of nearby affordable housing, homeowners restoring Victorians and everything in between. Right now it’s a vacant lot, but after ten years of work Trevvett and his group are hopeful that if they build it, shoppers will come.
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