CINCINNATI -- For two decades now, community activist Heather Sturgill has fought hard to make sure that her Northside neighborhood has the same benefits that small towns all across America have taken for granted.
Along with the Northside Community Council and CAIN (Churches Active In Northside), Sturgill had pleaded with Save-A-Lot, the grocery store that was once located in the neighborhood, to include fresher produce, organic products and to generally expand their lineup. She'd hoped they could also serve their target market better by working with CAIN when the agency purchased gift cards or certificates for holiday food shopping.
But Save-A-Lot refused.
It baffled Sturgill that the local branch would not even serve its main target market -- low-income residents -- so it didn’t completely surprise her when the grocery store closed abruptly in September 2013. But the store’s closing turned Northside, with its diverse population of 7,467, into a “food desert” -- defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as an area in which more than 40 percent of the population have an income that falls below federal poverty guidelines.
According to Sturgill, 22.5 percent of Northside residents live below the poverty level.
“I was very upset. People who had no transportation at least had some place to go for relatively fresh food,” Sturgill said. “It was not an ideal option, but the community had some place to go and look through the fruits and vegetables and find stuff that wasn’t going bad.”
Once Save-A-Lot closed, the community council and neighborhood started evaluating their options for a grocery store. They approached several chains, but no one wanted to open a store in the area, especially since the location was not on a main street.
Finally, Sturgill asked a neighbor, Kristen Barker, the executive director of Cincinnati Union Co-op Initiative (CUCI), a nonprofit that partners with individuals and organizations to create worker-owned businesses that sustain families, to help Northside start a worker-owned grocery store.
After an initial feasibility study and extensive research, they determined that Northside could support a neighborhood-sized grocery store and, with the support of the community, Apple Street Market was born.
Sturgill, 45, works as an independent contractor specializing in urban planning for her company, JOVIS, and has long been concerned with issues of social justice and a good quality of life for all.
Born and raised in the Cincinnati area, she lived in a trailer with Cheryl Howe, now 62, who was a single mother.
Sturgill, who is disabled and uses a wheelchair, struggled to go to college after a car wreck that severed her spinal cord and gave her a new perspective on life.
“I was politically aware and active from a young age, whether it was writing letters or participating in protests,” Sturgil said. “But my true passion is working on eliminating barriers to community living. My specialty is reviewing legal codes and policies for places where minor wording changes can increase access to housing and transportation.
"But not having access to fresh and healthy food is also a significant barrier to community living … which is what keeps me engaged in this transformative neighborhood project.”
Sturgill was elected to be on the board of Apple Street Market in 2015.
The 1,200-square-foot grocery store will go up in the former Save-a-Lot building and is expected to open in 2018.
Co-ops typically take five years to set up and get going, so Apple Street Market supporters are right on target. It is projected to be an economic model of community empowerment and will showcase local produce and baked goods, among other items.
Meanwhile, Sturgill, also a community-owner, is spending her time grant-writing, fundraising and promoting the store. She wants everyone to know that they can be an owner in their neighborhood grocery store and have a say in its operation.
Here's how it works
An ownership share costs $100, unless the person qualifies for any federal assistance program. Then the person can purchase a share for $10, the other $90 is being covered by neighbors that are making extra donations.
Owners can only buy one share and there are no additional fees. Once the co-op starts to make a profit, which is expected at around the fourth year of operation, shareholders will get dividends back. The one share each owner holds entitles them to a vote, dividends and discounts in the store.
Since the worker-owners are the ones doing the daily labor that will make the store a success, they will get a 65 percent of the dividends while community-owners will get 35 percent.
'Neighborhoods have been transformed'
Alongside a core group of seven volunteers, Christopher DeAngelis will be the general manager of Apple Street Market. He has spent his life working at co-ops all across the country and last year, he left his job at a co-op in Philadelphia to relocate to Cincinnati.
“I have worked in co-ops, and I see how they specialize in creating usable grocery stores that change low-income neighborhoods for the better” DeAngelis said.
Barker has successfully worked with at least three co-ops that are now up and running.
“Neighborhoods have been transformed with successful co-ops,” she said.
Apple Street Market has a skilled team that plans to make grocery store shopping easy and affordable by offering the following perks and incentives:
- Customers who receive federal aid will be given a 10 percent discount.
- A Twelve for Forty Program will help low-income shoppers with planning and buying ingredients to create six dinners that feed two people for less than $40 a week.
- There will be an on-site kitchen classroom operated by market staff and partners that will teach shoppers how to prepare nutritious meals.
- Supporters will also partner with a nutrition council to offer a series of six-week courses for families that will cover meal preparation, grocery shopping, food budgeting and nutrition.
The Hands-On Owners Program gives community-owners a 10 percent discount when they invest a certain amount of time in any community organization that helps to increase food access for underprivileged individuals.