Local co-op serves to employ, feed their community

Even early on a Thursday morning, the new Renaissance Community Co-op has a steady trickle of customers. Gloria Hill works the checkout line, wearing a small witch’s hat and an apron.

“I’ve been out of work for two years, so I’m thankful for this job,” said Hill. “I’m just praying it will succeed.”

After 18 years without a grocery store in the community and five years of organizing funding, northeast Greensboro’s community owned grocery store opened for business on Oct. 14 — the first of its kind.

“We’re a community that answered our own problems,” said Mo Kessler, a founding board member and governance and policy chair of the co-op. “We’re building community wealth and sustainability, and (have) created jobs for ourselves, all in the face of a million and a half ‘no’s’ and 20 years, basically, of neglect from the city.”

Eighteen years ago, the local Winn-Dixie left, leaving the area a food desert, a place without easy access to groceries. After 13 years, no new stores had come in to replace it, forcing many people in the generally impoverished neighborhood to take long public transportation trips to buy food.

It was then, in 2011, members of the community decided to band together and investigate the possibility of opening up a community owned co-op. So they commissioned a study on the viability of a grocery store.

“That research study showed that … $1,343,365 is spent, per week, within a two-mile radius of this store,” said Kessler. “So this really low income area that we’re told doesn’t spend enough, spends that much money on food per week. And that changes everything because if we capture five percent of the market, we’re profitable.”

The RCC used a variety of ways to raise funds, including grants from the city, flexible loans, fundraising and memberships. As a co-op, anyone can become a member for $100, which gives them five percent off certain items and a vote on how the co-op is run. The RCC now has almost a thousand members.

“It’s remarkable that we’ve been able to do this in about four years or five years, it really is,” said Casey Thomas, ’10, who serves on the board. “Most co-ops take eight to 10 to start. And it’s a co-op that a lot of people didn’t think would happen.”

Part of the initial difficulty in finding funding was that the RCC is a conventional grocery store, focused on providing food that the community wants and not higher priced natural food, a model many people thought could not work. According to the RCC, it is the only conventional grocery co-op in the country.

The new store is in its soft-opening phase, with its grand opening on Nov. 4, featuring a reception at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University. On Nov. 5, there will be a community event at the store.

“I went on the opening morning of the soft opening, and it was one of the coolest things,” said senior Eva Cosgrove, who is working with the RCC as part of her Reclaiming Democracy class. “Everyone there was beaming and so proud of the community just pulling this together.”

The store, according to Hill, is doing well so far.

“There have been a few complaints on the prices,” she said. “But you can’t compare us to a Food Lion, this is a community store.”

Hill is one of just under 30 employees at the RCC now, all of whom start at $10 an hour. Most are full time and live within walking distance of the store.

“The only other grocery store that starts at ($10 an hour) is Whole Foods,” said Kessler.

As the co-op grows and becomes profitable, Thomas hopes it will be able to provide inspiration for new, community-created opportunities.

“I hope that people who were not initially involved in the project get more interested in seeing what other cooperative opportunities there are,” she said. “It’s really important that people see co-operatives as a way forward in the economy … that people don’t separate justice from the ways we survive economically.”