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The Long Road: Work continues toward opening Raleigh's co-op grocery

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Mark your calendars, Raleigh residents. The public launch of the Fertile Ground Food Cooperative is set for July 31, a Thursday, at 6:30 at the Walnut Creek Wetland Center. For Southeast Raleigh, this is important. For all of Raleigh, this is important.

I'd say huge, but I'll reserve that word for the day when the Fertile Ground grocery store and cultural center opens in Southeast Raleigh—which, best case, is at least a year away. What's launching this month is the first membership drive, at $100 a head.

A small group of founding members, all volunteers, kicked in their money a year ago. Since then, they've written by-laws, solicited donors, commissioned a consultant to do a market study, scouted possible locations, and conducted a series of public meetings—all well-attended—to test the co-op concept. A website went live last week.

Easy? Not exactly, Ajamu Dillahunt said when I asked how things are going, "I went to a seminar on starting co-ops once," Dillahunt joked, "and one of the presenters—this was like Co-ops 101—said it's not rocket science. It's harder."

To which Dillahunt added, starting a co-op is difficult but, with enough determination, it's doable. "We've got a group that's really good, that's expanding, it's intergenerational, interracial, of people who want to do something for our community," he said. "We're a year in. I'm optimistic we'll be open in another year or so."

(For details, visit www.fertileground.coop or call 919-609-1237 or 919-724-0111.)

IMAGE COURTESY OF FERTILE GROUND FOOD COPERATIVE
  • Image courtesy of Fertile Ground Food Coperative

So what's the big deal about Fertile Ground? First, it's the prospect of affordable, healthy food in a part of the city considered a "food desert." Second, it's the organizational model of self-help, community and worker ownership and economic empowerment. Third, it's a chance to link this underserved part of the city to downtown Raleigh's institutions and prosperity—a prosperity that does not, however, include a full-service grocery store.

It's also an opportunity for Southeast Raleigh to build strength from within by linking, as Dillahunt said, civil rights generation leaders like himself and his wife, Rukiya, who know the community's history, with a younger generation of leaders—Kia Baker, Erin Byrd—who bring ideas and energy.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the Second Saturday movement in Raleigh. It's about establishing urban gardens and downtown markets, and reversing what happened in the last century, when the idea that city folks should grow and sell their own food was engineered out of urban existence.

Imagine that movement linked to a community-owned grocery store—perhaps somewhere close to downtown—that also functions as a center for educational programs about, yes, gardening and nutrition, but also about cooperative ownership and how to start a business.

That's the vision for Fertile Ground. On Thursday, at an organizers' meeting in Chavis Park, Baker offered an impressive outline of contacts made with Raleigh businesses, nonprofits and foundations. A few names: the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle, where Baker works. The Community Food Lab. The A.J. Fletcher Foundation. The Jamie Kirk Hahn Foundation. The Downtown Raleigh Alliance.

For most, their support so far consists of listening and helping to spread the word. Money may follow. "We're intrigued by the concept," said Damon Circosta, director of the Fletcher Foundation.

But here's the thing about co-ops. They're member-run and, in this case, worker-run. The more dues-paying members, the more donors will contribute. The more donors, the more members will join—and so on. Eventually, the city will be asked for money. And money will be borrowed, with the groceries as collateral.

Fertile Ground sent a delegation to Greensboro, where a co-op is opening soon. It's taken 10 years. On the other hand, the National Cooperative Grocers Association lists 191 stores operating in 38 states, including nine in North Carolina. Three are Weaver Street Markets, in Carrboro, Chapel Hill and Hillsborough. The Durham Co-op Market is due to open next year, seven years after its inception, and its website lists the number of its members: 1,312.

So Fertile Ground has its work cut out for it—or rather, its work is cut out for us.

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