By Katie Moritz
The Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw once wrote that “There is no love sincerer than the love of food.” But what do you get then when you combine that sentiment with the love of community and sustainability? Granite City Grocery, a food co-operative based out of downtown Barre, is going to find out.
Barre has a simple yet difficult problem: it is a food desert. According to the USDA, an area qualifies as a food desert if “at least 33% of the census tract’s population must reside more than one mile from a supermarket or large grocery store.” Although Barre is a city, there is limited access to food. For people with cars, this is not a big deal. They can drive to Berlin, or the surrounding areas to shop at chains a couple of miles out. But for people who live in downtown Barre without car, roughly 60%, two miles is too far. Hence, to get food, some people ride the bus, while others buy their from Dollar General.
Barre used to have a Grand Union supermarket, but it closed in 2002 and now serves as the location for a Lenny’s Shoe & Apparel and a Rite Aid. People have tried to lobby chain grocery stores to come into town, but Barre isn’t big enough to support them, and the corner store model is simply too small to meet the population. Barre needs the goldilocks solution: a store that not only sells affordable and healthy food to downtown residents, but can also sustain itself and its community.
Five years ago, the idea for Granite City Grocery Co-operative began to take shape. Ariel Zevon, who was in charge of a farm-to-table company called LACE, had a vision to improve food access. When LACE closed its doors, a public meeting was held at the site to discuss the possibility of founding a co-operative grocery store in Barre. Emily Kaminsky gathered a group of people and wrote a grant which set them up with a contract with CDS Consulting. By 2013, the Granite City Grocery board was elected, and by the fall, things began to move.
“In true Vermont fashion,” Nick Landry, board President, explains, “we thought we’re going to do it ourselves, we’re going to take care of our own.”
At every Granite City Grocery board meeting, members open by sharing what Nick calls “My Co-op Story.” For Nick, it’s personal. He grew up in Barre and by the age of seventeen, “knew everything and was tired of the one-horse town.” After high school, he traveled for several years
through the military and in college. It wasn’t until he saw more of the world outside of Barre that he realized he wanted to come back.
When Nick left after high school, he had wanted to get away from the problems plaguing Barre. He had “wanted something shiny and new.” When he came back in 2013, the place was the same. But he was different; he realized that the solution wasn’t to leave, but to be involved.
He believes that Granite City Grocery (GCG), will offer a sense of engagement not just for himself and others involved in founding the co-op, but it will also serve as a downtown gathering space. “Main Street,” he says “is still a throughway. Granite City Grocery will address that. It will also serve as a community spot, ultimately becoming the heart of downtown Barre.”
Granite City Grocery relies heavily on volunteers and is made up of many different components. There’s a board, an outreach committee, a membership committee, a finance committee, and a site committee. Each one works to get the word out about what they’re working on and what they hope to accomplish. It is not just a group of people coming together and winging it. For example, they have a market study and they are working with several professional companies to plan out the steps needed for success.
One obvious need is a physical location. GCG hired Dakota International to get the metrics set up for success and the facts are pretty straightforward: they need ten thousand square feet, they need free parking, they need to be downtown, and they need a loading dock. If the place has all these requirements, it will, according to data, be successful. Currently, Granite City Grocery has a short list of places that meet all the above. Although they do not yet know which one it will be, everything is coming together.
Vice President, Clay Whitney, who works for Cabot Creamery, a farmers’ co-operative, pays attention to co-ops around the country. “No two are the same,” he explains. “Co-ops are built up from the community around them, and every community is different.” For example, GCG will be similar to City Market in Burlington in that, like City Market, it will carry “conventional stuff.” That means that it will need to carry brands that are not only healthy, but also affordable.
This particular co-op will be a full-size store, with everything one might expect to see in a large chain. The difference is that it will be owned by the community. This allows more money to stay in the area. 38% of revenue spent goes back into the community, employees make an average of one dollar more an hour, and approximately 20% of products are locally sourced.
The GCG Site Committee is currently talking to developers. Their big question now, as they move forward, is what do developers need to see in order for GCG to continue its forward momentum? And developers are saying the same thing the bank is saying: they want to see growth, they want to see continued, sustained increases in memberships. At over six hundred memberships, Granite City Grocery is confident they can do just that.
Curious about supporting the community and becoming a Founding Member? More information can be found on GCG’s webpage, granitecitygrocery.coop.
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