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Food co-op hopes to bring life to food deserts

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Posted at 11:47 AM, May 23, 2013
and last updated 2013-05-23 11:55:19-04

EDITOR’S NOTE: This semester WTVR.com has partnered with VCU’s School of Mass Communications “iPadJournos” mobile and social media journalism project. Students from the project reported the following story.

By Sam Isaacs and Shelby Mertens (Special to WTVR.com)

RICHMOND, Va. – With more than 25 food deserts in the area, Richmond has one of the highest percentages of them in the country. The Richmond Food Co-op is now working to bring fresh produce to one of the food deserts near the Diamond. Co-founder Susan Hill has been working to gather members to help start the first co-op in the city since Fare Share Cooperative Grocery on West Main Street closed in the 1990s.

“A food desert is a neighborhood with low income and no access to fresh, healthy food. Many of the residents in these neighborhoods are restricted to buying most or all of their foods from corner stores,” said Katie Vatalaro Hill, the assistant director and nutrition services coordinator at VCU’s Wellness Resource Center.

The co-op is scheduled to open this fall or next spring, depending on how quickly and how many members join. The goal is 800 members. Susan Hill said that nothing has been officially confirmed, but Scott’s Addition, the neighborhood near the Diamond and Movieland, is a projected location for the store with hopes that it will attract shoppers from VCU and Carytown.

“A co-op is a business that is owned by its members. Everyone has an equal voice and one vote in the business. The Food Co-op will focus on products that are as local and organic as possible while still serving as people’s one-stop grocery store,” Hill said.

Membership in the co-op costs $125 per person and comes with a store discount and the ability to vote on how the business is run. The co-op currently has a membership list of over 150 people. Hill added that one does not have to be a member to shop.

Though Hill believes the co-op could have a big impact on food accessibility in a food desert, others are concerned that access is only part of the problem.

Mayor Dwight C. Jones established the Richmond Food Policy Task Force in 2010 to address citywide food and health issues. Anne Darby, the current co-chair, said she thinks the co-op is a good idea, but it may not be enough to change much.

“No one project is going to change anything. You can establish a place for people to buy the food, but that still doesn’t help those who have no means of transportation. I do think this will be a great place for people to buy local foods, but the food needs to be accessible to everyone in the community,” Darby said.

Both Hill and Darby said they agreed that in addition to availability and accessibility, education is a big problem with food deserts.

“Just because someone has access to fresh vegetables doesn’t mean they are going to know how to prepare them when they have been buying mostly canned goods and prepackaged foods from corner stores,” Hill said.

Darby said she thinks the community-run co-op has a great opportunity to address the education problem.

“The co-op will be run by people who are aware and care about the food desert problem. The building itself could be a community hub for education,” she said.

Darby said the USDA sets the standard for how food deserts are mapped, but in reality, Richmond could be worse than what the national average shows.

“I believe there are a couple of grocery stores that they thought existed but either don’t or fail to serve fresh foods, I have been working on a food desert map and believe mine is more accurate,” she said.

Though the verdict is out on the effect the co-op will have, both Susan Hill and Darby said that the solution to the problem is far from easy.

“If there was one thing we could do to fix things, we would do it. My number one recommendation is to hire a full-time food policy coordinator, who’s full-time job would be to address all of these problems. We just to need to dedicate more resources,” Darby said.

This story was reported by the “iPadJournos” mobile and social media journalism project, a cooperation between WTVR.com and VCU’s School of Mass Communications.