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Atlanta addresses a food oasis with right-size retail

When residents of the Historic South Atlanta neighborhood set out to build a food oasis, the secret ingredient was right-size retail.

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When residents of the Historic South Atlanta neighborhood set out to build a food oasis, the secret ingredient was right-size retail. 

Carver Neighborhood Market, which opened last summer about three miles south of the state capitol, is confirming the power of retail models scaled to fit the place.

Across Georgia, where Feeding America estimates 1.9 million residents experience food insecurity, retail solutions have been elusive. In 2011, the Blank Family Foundation partnered with The Food Trust to organize the Georgia Supermarket Access Taskforce, using the same approach that led to support for 88 new or expanded supermarkets in Pennsylvania.

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While the Georgia task force produced compelling findings, we did not see movement on the number of full-size supermarkets.

Among the many reasons for this was that Georgia communities need more right-size retail. In neighborhoods marked by both low density and low incomes, most big supermarket chains can’t do business. Right-size retail may be the answer.

Consider a tale of two neighborhoods

Historic South Atlanta sits in the 30315 ZIP code, an area 11.3 square miles in size with 2,900 residents per square mile (33,000 residents, in all). The median household income is US$21,000.

In Philadelphia’s Parkside neighborhood, where The Food Trust helped grocer Jeff Brown open a successful full-size supermarket, the store sits in ZIP code 19131. In a ZIP code less than half the area of Atlanta’s 30315, there are 8,000 residents per square mile (42,000 residents, in all) with a median household income of US$28,000.

Bottom line: in Historic South Atlanta, fewer than half as many residents per square mile have to travel twice as far to shop, and their buying power is lower.

Different conditions allow for different retail options. Brown’s Parkside ShopRite store is 69,700 square feet and includes a pharmacy; Carver Neighborhood Market, run by Focused Community Strategies (FCS), a nonprofit community development group, is 2,000 square feet.

Yet Carver Neighborhood Market is stocked with fresh produce and everyday staples families need. The store is an emerging success story in the Georgia Food Oasis campaign, which is supporting resident-led efforts in three Georgia communities—Atlanta, Columbus, and Augusta—to expand opportunities to eat, cook, and grow fruits and vegetables.

Learning How to Right-Size

FCS has a long history in the neighborhood and owns the buildings that are home to a bicycle shop, a coffee shop, and until last year, a thrift store. Listening and responding to residents, FCS realized that a grocery store would mean more to the neighborhood. Jeff Delp, who directs economic development for FCS, immersed himself into grocery operations. What emerged from his crash course is Carver Neighborhood Market.

It’s telling that Delp drew on lessons from a Wright’s Market, a 13,000-square-foot store in Opelika, Alabama. Historic South Atlanta, like many parts of the city, has more in common with small towns than with densely populated northeastern cities like Philadelphia. Adapting solutions that work in Opelika, such as right-size retail, is proving to be a smart move.

The suppliers that work with full-size supermarkets usually won’t service stores the size of Carver. Most often, this barrier prevents neighborhoods such as Historic South Atlanta from getting any kind of store at all. Through Wright’s, Delp developed relationships with suppliers and with vendors who would help with things like produce coolers, which are a notorious problem for startup grocers.

After correcting the inevitable cooler glitches early on, Carver’s monthly operating expenses (not counting support services from FCS staff) are now US$136,000. It draws about 150 customers a day. Net revenue from store sales is covering about 85 percent of direct costs. The balance is covered by small grants from foundations and support from FCS.

For foundations frequently asked to underwrite 100 percent of the cost of health and human services, Carver Neighborhood Market stands out as an unusually attractive investment.

At What Price to Community Health?

In February, Delp launched a regular Thursday promotion, offering discounts on fresh produce—similar to the double up program that the Fair Food Network pioneered at farmers markets.

The results are promising. In January, fruits and vegetables accounted for 9 percent of SNAP spending. On the last Thursday of February, after area residents had a chance to learn about the promotion, fruits and vegetables accounted for 53 percent of SNAP spending.

“We’re seeing over and over again, people want produce,” Delp says.

The store started out with its produce supplier coming once a week. Now the store requires two deliveries a week, and Delp is testing sourcing options for local fruits and vegetables. With more local produce, the growing customer demand will contribute to a virtuous cycle that also helps Georgia farmers.

While demand is unquestioned, affordability is always an issue. Carver’s test of a weekly promotion reveals the power of pricing. At present, a grant from the Atlanta Falcons Youth Foundation is helping the store offer the weekly discount. Because it takes only modest grants to cover the incremental cost of a discount, this kind of philanthropic investment may turn out to be one of the great ways to address chronic disease.

The American Heart Association reports that discounting fruits and vegetables by 30 percent “can save nearly 200,000 lives over 15 years.” Foundations accustomed to making grants to health clinics and family health services should add grants for discounted produce to their list of effective interventions.

Building a Business and Building Community

Beyond the encouraging sales data and the power of right-size retail, the essential lesson from Carver Neighborhood Market is also the guiding force of Georgia Food Oasis: food is central to community building.

The Carver store works, in large part, because FCS is a community development group with a track record in Historic South Atlanta. FCS has had to learn the grocery business but not the business of community, where trust is currency.

“I’ve learned how much the food business is about trust,” Delp says. “People are putting an awful lot of trust in you when it comes to their food.”

Set aside the notion that Carver is a small grocery. It’s not small at all. It’s right-size.

This article first appeared in Food Tank.

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