Etheopea Balogun realized it can be tough to find fresh fruits and vegetables – particularly organic produce “not wrapped in plastic” – in Southeast Raleigh.
She came across a local solution: the Fertile Ground Food Cooperative, in which members pay a fee and have ownership and access to healthy, affordable food.
Now Fertile Ground is inching closer to its goal of opening a store in 2018. Until then, the group is bringing nutritious goods to the community through a farmers market.
The 2nd annual Fertile Ground Cooperative Community Farmers Market will kick off from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, July 1, at 1214 E. Lenoir St. The market will return each Saturday through Aug. 5.
With the mantra “we own this,” the market will sell fresh produce from small farmers, underutilized black farmers and a trio of women who specialize in organic farming.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture considers Southeast Raleigh a food desert, where residents have little or no access to nutritious foods.
“Because there is a community of people with nothing here for us, we have to create it for ourselves, and I want to be a part of that,” said Balogun, a Fertile Ground board member whose parents owned a grocery co-op in her hometown near White Plains, N.Y. “It comes all the way back around. I didn’t know this would happen, but I had to find something to save our community.”
Fertile Ground, which held its first membership campaign in July 2014, has passed the half-way mark to its goal of at least 500 members who pay $100 each. Now the group is scouting for a permanent place to call home.
This is something we can do, something we can make ours.
Demetrius Hunter, board member for Fertile Ground
“The progress is phenomenal,” said project leader Janet Howard, noting that the group added 40 new members at its June 1 meeting. “We’re feeling good about it.”
The farmers market showcases Fertile Ground’s vision for its grocery store: While farmers sell fresh fruits and vegetables, entrepreneurs will share products and services, and experts will teach free, hour-long classes on everything from hydroponics and natural hair care to healthy cooking.
“It won’t be a typical grocery store, and we won’t duplicate co-ops in richer neighborhoods,” said Demetrius Hunter, who resumed his father’s Grocers on Wheels mobile delivery and curbside market in 2012 to help ease the local food-desert crisis. He has since partnered with Fertile Ground as a vendor and board member.
“We will meet people where they are and find partners and resources to make things work, according to what we enjoy,” Hunter said. “If we don’t, people will come in and take over, just like gentrification. This is something we can do, something we can make ours.”
Money from produce sales will go to the farmers, Hunter said. All other sales go into the store’s coffers.
Advocates of grocery co-ops say the projects can improve economic conditions and provide jobs.
But there are challenges, said Carmen Jules, general manager of the NuWaters Co-op in Houston who advises up-and-coming food co-ops. Success can depend on community education, fundraising and collective responsibility.
“It’s a wonderful undertaking, but it’s a struggle,” Jules said. “They’ll have some major obstacles, but it can work.”
Food co-ops flourished in the 1970s and ’80s but saw years of decline, said Stuart Reid, executive director of the Food Co-op Initiative, which assists start-ups across the country. They made a comeback about a decade ago.
They don’t know what to make of it, so they’ll have to be educated.
Stuart Reid, executive director of the Food Co-op Initiative
In the past two years, Reid said, inquiries have surged from urban, low-income, food-desert communities – many of them with a large population of minority residents, like Southeast Raleigh.
This summer, Reid plans to visit Fertile Ground. He said it will be important to inform people in Raleigh about co-ops.
“Gatekeepers are not familiar enough to understand the benefit co-ops can bring the community,” Reid said. “They don’t know what to make of it, so they’ll have to be educated.
“Their impact can be pretty dramatic,” he said of co-ops. “It’s more than just a shopping experience. A lot of little things add up to a pretty big picture.”
Find out more
For more information, go to www.fertileground.coop.