Neighborhoods - Inside the Boulevard Food Co-Op
The resident-run initiative tackles food insecurity in Old Fourth Ward
Every other Thursday, Old Fourth Ward resident Charlie Star begins and ends his day from the cab of a U-Haul truck. Star is one of the Boulevard Food Co-Op's original members as well as the organization's main volunteer delivery driver. Twice a month he's responsible for shuttling several thousand pounds of food and supplies from the Atlanta Community Food Bank and Truly Living Well Urban Agriculture Center to the Kindezi School, a nonprofit charter school located on the eastern edge of Old Fourth Ward's Central Park.
Food cooperatives are distribution outlets specifically built to serve their members' needs. No two co-ops are identical, but most are oriented around principles such as open membership, democratic member control, and concern for community. Some co-ops seek to provide consistent sustainable food sources; others focus on supplementing low-income households' groceries. Unlike the traditional charity model of a food pantry, co-op members have a say in how the organization operates and participate in the distribution process.
"It's not just like giving handouts," Atlanta City Councilman Kwanza Hall says. In December 2013, the Atlanta Community Food Bank and Truly Living Well joined forces with Hall's Yo Boulevard initiative to start a dialogue on food insecurity within the greater Boulevard corridor. "It's people being empowered, inspired, with the tools and resources to own their own future," Hall says. "And in this case the problem is food insecurity and hunger, and local residents are part of the solution."
The mile-and-a-half-long stretch of Boulevard from Ponce de Leon Avenue to Decatur Street is home to historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, and Atlanta Medical Center. Over the years, the corridor has become known for crime, street drug sales, and a high concentration of low-income residents.
This part of the neighborhood is also a food desert, an area where "a significant number or share of residents is more than one mile (urban) or 10 miles (rural) from the nearest supermarket," according to the USDA. Most of the corridor's low-income residents struggle with food insecurity to some degree, says Truly Living Well Program Services Director Kai Dean. "The majority of our members, I would say 75 percent, come from housing projects nearby. And I would say the other 25 are seniors from the Cosby Spear Highrise."
The Boulevard Food Co-Op launched in fall 2014. Initially, the Co-Op served 15 member families. Now in its second year, the organization distributes 40 pounds of fresh and packaged foods to more than 60 families every two weeks.
One crisp February morning, a hodgepodge of volunteers and organizers prepare for one of the Co-Op's bi-monthly Kindezi School pick-up days. Some trickle in through a side door and disappear down one of the school's colorful hallways. Others linger in the sun-speckled parking lot, chatting as they wait for Star to arrive with the day's provisions. Just after 8 a.m., the 15-foot U-Haul pulls into the parking lot. Once the goods are brought inside, Co-Op members, many of whom rely on motorized wheelchairs to get around, move about the room making selections from tables as they pass.
To join the Co-Op, prospective members go through an application process to establish their eligibility. "Members have to fall in line with the poverty rate along with the SNAP guidelines," Dean says. Once approved, members pay a one-time $5 membership fee plus a $3 processing fee on distribution day. The revenue from these fees covers programming costs such as the Co-Op's six-week training class new members are required to take to help them make healthy dietary choices.
Cynthia Wheat, a two-year member with a huge smile and joyful eyes, says the Co-Op has played a huge role in helping manage her diabetes.
"I was 235 pounds before I started and I'm 174 now," Wheat says. "In the two years I've been here. And it's because of all this. Amen! I would never have lost that weight because I'd be eatin' other things out on the streets. This is homegrown stuff, country stuff I was raised up with. This saved my life and I love this place."
Another member with diabetes, Bessie Green, feels particularly grateful for the training class and access to fresh produce.
"That was my biggest takeaway," Green says, "learning to read the labels and knowing what foods to eat and how to cook healthy. My health has definitely improved."
As the Co-Op continues to grow, the stakeholders have been in the process of developing an independent source of revenue to become a self-sustaining operation. In May, the Boulevard Food Co-Op and the Old Fourth Business Association are launching a bottled hot sauce enterprise called Hot Sauce in the City, which will be the funding mechanism that supports operating expenses in the future.
"So those sales will end up supporting the Co-Op and its revenue model but at the same time give us that foundation for sustainability," Hall says. "But who knows, it could also be able to do even more over the long term because of the skill sets developed. ... My dream is to see more entrepreneurs/social entrepreneurs come right out of Bedford Pines, Old Fourth Ward, and Boulevard communities from our Co-Op and sustain the organization."