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Carver Neighborhood Market goes from thrift shop to healthy food

FCS Urban Ministries' commercial strip evolves to tackle food deserts

For the past decade, a small commercial strip roughly one mile from Turner Field in South Atlanta has acted as a community hub. For much of that time, a thrift store there has sold low-cost clothing and provided jobs. An adjoining coffee shop opened and hosted neighborhood meetings and monthly meet-ups with the area's school board representative. And a bicycle shop teaches neighborhood kids how to fix two-wheelers. But finding a head of lettuce hasn't been easy.

Next week, the thrift store will evolve into something different: the Carver Neighborhood Market, a 2,000-square-foot grocery store in the middle of an area lacking healthy food options. The ambitious endeavor, a fraction of the size of your typical Kroger, faces challenges but could help bring a new local business to the neighborhood, boost other surrounding communities, and chip away at food deserts in metro Atlanta, where more than half a million people live farther than one mile from a supermarket.

"People are paying more either in time or money than they should be," says Jeff Delp of FCS Urban Ministries, a local nonprofit that in 2003 bought a liquor store and opened the thrift shop in its place. "One way we can help our neighbors without giving things away is to allow them to shop and get a deal. If we can bring affordable food here, it helps them in a multitude of ways."

There are a few national grocery chains in the general area. Kroger has a location three miles away on Moreland Avenue, with another slated to open as part of a controversial development along the Atlanta Beltline in Grant Park. But that trip becomes a multi-hour affair for residents without access to reliable transportation. According to USDA data, South Atlanta is surrounded on three sides by communities where approximately 20 percent of residents don't own an automobile and live more than a half mile from a supermarket. FCS' demographic research found that people living within one mile of the market spend $12 million a year on groceries — but only one-sixth of that cash is spent in the same area.

FCS' plans have been in the works since March 2014. Rather than open a market that sells only organic, locally grown produce that could help employ area farmers, Delp wants the market to provide residents with healthy food such as kale and quinoa, along with the daily items including Gatorade and potato chips for students walking home after classes at the nearby New Schools at Carver. Kids could work with the adjoining bike shop and deliver items to nearby homes.

Over time, Delp says, the market could add more healthy items — and possibly cook and package them in a commercial kitchen. FCS wants to create an in-store kitchen that could teach cooking to help people prepare healthy meals at home.

"We want people to start thinking differently," he says. "If you have a choice between hot Cheetos and kale, you know what hot Cheetos taste like. So we'd use that to show different ways to prepare."

Getting to the point of actually starting construction, tearing down old shelves, and buying coolers has not been easy. Some potential distributors chose not to provide goods to the market because it did not plan to — and still does not plan to — sell alcohol or tobacco, already available in abundance at nearby convenience stores. And the economics of providing fresh produce grown by local farmers, at prices neighbors can afford, is tricky.

"We don't want to price out our neighbors," Delp says. "How can we do something that's sustainable, both as a business and in relation to the environment, but also to the systems around us?"

But getting food in the door is just one step. Grocery stores aren't easy businesses. And the city presents its own challenges. Alphonso Cross of Boxcar Grocer, a small food retail establishment that operated in Castleberry Hill for three years before closing in January 2015, says the lack of foot traffic in many Atlanta neighborhoods — plus Atlanta's auto-oriented cityscape, which has instilled a drive-everywhere mind-set in many people, sapping neighborhood loyalty — adds another obstacle to running a local food market.

"Atlanta still doesn't have urban density to make sure that daytime retailers can survive and be profitable and sustainable," says Cross, who's scouting new Boxcar locations in the city and the Southeast. Additional funding incentives to help small-scale neighborhood groceries compete with big-box grocers could help spark the local upstarts, he says.

Kwabena Nkromo, the founder of Atlanta Food and Farm PBC Inc., notes that growers and suppliers who share common missions could partner. Stores can also add baking and processing to help make more of a profit. In addition, he says, additional philanthropic groups are coming forward to help address food access.

The first step for the market, however, is to get people in the door.

"If we get things going and have a good product at good price, then word spreads," Delp says. "And word spreads fast."