Grassroots Groceries: Black Women Team Up To Flood Food Deserts… And Beyond

Shauntrice Martin’s grocery store, Black Market KY, opens next month in a transformed Domino’s location at the border of the Russell and Portland neighborhoods.

A 20-minute walk away in Russell, Megan Bell is working on opening a mini mart, also in January. It will be one of two physical locations — there’s another coming to St. Matthews — for her grocery delivery business, The Next Door Market.

In Old Louisville, Cassia Herron has found an office space for the Louisville Community Grocery, a cooperatively owned concept, which after six years of work is the closest it’s been to opening in an underserved area of the city.

All three grocery concepts grew from a goal to provide healthy food to people in areas of the city where fresh groceries are not easy to find. They all emerged from years of disinvestment by grocery chains and the city’s failure to find solutions. They’re all spearheaded by Black women who have lived (or still live in) such neighborhoods. And, all three women are supporting each other and planning to work together to make sure their concepts succeed.

“We’re doing this because of the need,” said Herron, 41, “and that, if one of us is successful, then that means it’s a more, higher propensity that the other stores are successful.”

There are other efforts by community members to supply underserved areas with groceries: a local entrepreneur, Tammy Hawkins, opened the Parkland Neighborhood Food Mart in October.

Over the past 15 to 20 years in Louisville, Herron has watched as supermarket chains have abandoned poorer, often Black, areas of the city — further drying up existing food deserts there. And she hasn’t been satisfied by the city’s response, which has included investing in nonprofits, community gardens, mobile markets and small stores — but hasn’t solved the problem.

“We have heard our mayor talk about a local food economy and local food for 10 years and we’ve seen six grocery stores close,” said Herron. “And we haven’t seen the urban rural community partnerships that we envisioned 20 years ago when we started farmers markets in these neighborhoods.”

So, she said, “we are putting our money where our mouth is — around really helping to imagine and create the kind of food system that we know that we deserve.” They’re doing it on their own.

Herron, who has a masters in urban planning and used to live in Shelby Park’s food desert, has been working on the Louisville Community Grocery for years. Bell, who was a stay-at-home mom, started to form Next Door Market with her husband, Branden, around the time the pandemic hit. And Martin, who has worked for and directed various nonprofits in Louisville and other cities, created the Black Market as an outgrowth of Feed the West, a charitable effort that Martin started with Change Today, Change Tomorrow. She began the program to supply West End residents like hers with groceries after the area Kroger closed in June in response to protests over the police killing of Breonna Taylor.

This was all before the Louisville Metro Council passed a budget this year to allocate $3.5 million to a “community grocery” in an underserved area of the city. It’s something Herron has been waiting for — an investment from the city in a community-led grocery. But, it went out to bid, not directly to her, and she, as well as Martin and Bell said that they have felt as if members of the local government and news media have tried to pit them against each other as competitors for the crumbs of funding.

The city’s capital budget, as passed, said the money was for a “Louisville Community Grocery,” which is the name of Herron’s project. But the committee’s chair, Councilman Bill Hollander, said the appropriation was never meant for a specific concept. Council member David James said he originally thought it was meant for Herron’s project but learned after it passed that his colleagues did not think the same.

Martin and Bell said they will not file a request for the community grocery funding because they believe it belongs to Herron’s project.

“Obviously, I have a new business. I am a single mom. I would love $3.5 million,” said Martin, who is 35. “But, I’m not willing to take that from someone who worked for it. Because as much as I know this grocery store is going to make a difference, we need more than one grocery store in The West End.”

Bell, who is 31, said, “They are community-owned, and the community will own that store, so it will be super beneficial for them to have it than anyone else to have it. And it was already promised to them so they deserve it.”

One local news station still asked if Bell was going for the money. And Martin said that Metro government employees involved with the city’s Build Back Better, Together initiative, which she’s also a part of, have told her to apply for it.

In a statement, Mayor Greg Fischer’s spokesperson Jean Porter said, “There is absolutely no effort to pit anyone against another.”

Porter offered that Metro’s Director of the Center for Health Equity did talk to the Louisville Community Grocery and New Roots Market, a nonprofit that runs farmers markets for low income individuals, to clarify that the funding was not directly allocated to any group and that there would be an RFP process.

By choosing to collaborate rather than compete, Herron, Bell and Martin hope that their projects will last and be consistent sources of food that their communities haven’t had in recent years. During a 10 month period in 2016 and 2017 alone, four Louisville grocery stores in low income areas of the city closed, including two Kroger locations. Last year, the company started a mobile market with the help of Dare to Care, but it temporarily left the streets this year because of the coronavirus pandemic, although it is now back.

“We’ve been talking about this for months: When we’re going to open, how are we going to do it, how we can collaborate,” said Martin back in September. “Because that’s part of the issue previously is that a lot of these stores, there was no coalition between businesses. Not because they didn’t want to, but it just wasn’t part of their plan. So we feel like that’s going to be a real change is to have that coalition up front as we’re still in the planning stages.”

Bell said, “It’s great because we’re learning from, we can learn from each other as far as what works best for each other.”

Martin, Herron and Bell want to eventually start buying supplies from producers together to get a discount — and have Bell pick them up with her truck. All of the stores will be far enough away from each other that they won’t be jostling for the same customer base, as well, said Martin.

And, there other aspects that make the different grocery concepts unique…


Shauntrice Martin showed her son Iniejah Allen Jr. how to dig up the remaining strips of sod.

BLACK MARKET KY

Shauntrice Martin’s goal for Black Market KY is sustainability. Not just sustainable food, although she’s committed to providing healthy, local options to customers.

“We don’t want to make something great that only lasts a couple months,” she said.

To keep Black Market KY around, Martin said, she needs several things, including reliable employees, affordable groceries and for the for-profit grocery store to be integrated with the community.

To attract and create dependable employees, Martin plans to pay a living wage and provide child care and transportation for their first month of work. To make that possible, she plans to forgo a salary initially. She also intends to hire people who have felony records and help them work on figuring out what to do next in their lives.

Black Market KY has already forged connections with the community, Martin said, through her work as the founder of Feed The West. But, she plans to strengthen those ties with a community garden, free farmers market on Saturdays and grant writing workshops. The Market will become not only a grocery store but a community hub for resources, Martin said.

“What I’ve seen over the years is that businesses come without even talking to the community and it fails,” she said. “Because people didn’t even want it in the first place or they can’t afford it or just don’t need the service. And the other thing to me is making sure that we are something, we are different. We are not coming in here, putting bars on the windows to indicate that we’re scared of the community. This is going to be part of this neighborhood.”

The groceries Martin sells will be sold at cost for those living in The West End. Their groceries will be subsidized by people from outside the community shopping there, called “Accomplices.”

“Historically, West End residents have not been given equal access to healthy, affordable food so Black Market KY is ready to change that and disrupt the food apartheid,” read a social media post by the Market.

Martin wants Black Market KY to carry what the nearest Kroger doesn’t. Martin is also the creator of the Bok Choy Project, in which she enlisted a group of volunteers to visit Kroger locations across the city. She found that grocery stores in neighborhoods with higher Black populations had smaller produce sections, fewer organic options and a police presence.

Kroger responded to Martin’s claims in a statement sent to the Courier Journal in July, in which a spokesperson named Erin Grant said that the company was reviewing its produce variety in West End stores and would be creating an area in its produce section for customers to let the company know what it was missing. The company has invested more than $2 million in its West End stores in the past three years, Grant said.

Seventy to 80% of the Black Market’s inventory will be fresh fruits and vegetables, Martin said. She also plans to sell the essentials, such as rice, bread, milk (cow and nut milks), meat and toiletries — with a focus on products coming from Black-owned businesses. Some specialty brands, such as Wells Made peanut butter, might be more expensive than the economy brand versions, but Martin wants to expose shoppers to more Black-owned businesses.

Martin said she is happy seeing other Black-led ventures such as Bell’s and Herron’s bringing fresh food to underserved areas. She thinks it will help with her overarching mission of sustainability.

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“I think, for this to survive, there would have to be other options, too,” said Martin. “So having the Louisville Community Grocery, having Next Door Market, having the Black Market is going to make a difference for all of us. Because we can better deal with the market shocks. Because that’s going to happen. There’s going to be times when the farmers can’t get here for whatever reason. I might need to grab some stuff from Cassia’s market. We want to make sure that all three are successful and sustainable.”


Megan Bell.

THE NEXT DOOR MARKET

Megan Bell wanted to open a traditional, brick and mortar grocery store in The West End. One that would serve high-quality goods, like you would find at Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods. But first, she and her husband, Branden, a physical therapist, decided to test their idea out with a mobile market. And they soon found that a grocery delivery business has benefits that the average physical store does not.

It’s convenient for customers Bell said, and it’s also not limited to serving just one area of the city; Next Door Mobile Market can cater to food deserts in The West End, Newburg, and it can even help people living in places such as The East End who might not want to go grocery shopping because of COVID-19.

“One of the things that you know, people, customers love is that it was just more flexible,” Bell said. “You see Instacart; you see Amazon. Amazon now works with Whole Foods. You see all of those corporations are now starting to collaborate with companies that already do deliveries.”

Next Door Market sells everything you’d find at a grocery store, Bell said: produce, meat, dairy items, household supplies, baby products and more. Some items, such as the produce, are priced comparably to Kroger’s. Some are more expensive because Bell’s priority is to sell high-quality products, which often aren’t found at grocery stores in predominantly Black areas of the city.

Bell and her husband grew up in Newburg. There were and still are no Whole Food-type stores in the neighborhood, Bell said, and her parents, who had a car but struggled with health problems, would not have driven far away to go to one. With Next Door, Bell is also placing an emphasis on selling local products and items from Black-owned businesses.

The Market has same-day delivery and drop-off locations. Not only can Bell deliver throughout Louisville, but she also can send goods across the country. Next Door Market has its own truck for local deliveries, but for out of state and customers in other parts of Kentucky, Bell uses USPS, FedEx  — whatever she needs — to ship products. These customers aren’t ordering groceries, but they will buy local products: For example, out of state buyers have purchased an elderberry syrup sold by a local business.

Bell still wants to open a brick-and-mortar — two, actually. The mini mart in The East End should open near Mall St. Matthews this month, and the one in The West End will be part of The Village at West Jefferson — to be open on or after Jan. 11.

Since starting to work with Martin and Herron, Bell said, the three women are learning from each other, and their skills complement each other’s. Martin, Bell said, knows how to engage with the community. Herron, she said, is good at organizing people to get work done. And as for herself, Bell said she’s learned how to run a business with a small team.


Cassia Herron.

LOUISVILLE COMMUNITY GROCERY

Cassia Herron is ready for the Louisville Community Grocery to open.

“We’ve been working on this way too long for it not to be further along already,” said Herron, who is the president of the Louisville Association for Community Economics. The grocery is one of the nonprofit’s projects.

Herron has been toiling on this vision for six years: A cooperatively-owned grocery store in Louisville, selling healthy, affordable and local food. It wouldn’t just engage members of the community, it would be run by them. Members pay a fee based on income, and in return, they have a say in how the store is managed. And, if the store makes a profit, they get to collectively decide what to do with the money.

The grocery’s members are still trying to decide on a location, but Herron said it will likely be located east of Bell’s and Martin’s West Louisville stores — more likely in Shelby Park, Smoketown or Old Louisville.

Over the past five months, the co-op has added around 230 members for a total of 330, with the help of its first employee, ownership advocate Lisa Ann Markuson. That’s “great progress,” said Herron. It took about a year for the co-op to accumulate 100.

The LCG also recently received a $30,000, unsolicited grant from the Community Foundation of Louisville.

Then, there’s the city money. In Herron’s years of working on the grocery, Metro government has never contributed money to her project. Although Herron believes the recent appropriation was meant for her at the outset, she’s now committed herself to responding to the city’s RFP by its January deadline. The RFP says that the proposal must address how it meets needs that the public identified. The Louisville Community Grocery sounds like what they want: A community-driven, locally owned project in a food desert that focuses on locally sourced fresh produce and meat options.

A preference will be given to projects operated by vendors who are currently in Louisville and those who pay employees above $10.10 per hour, according to the RFP. Herron told LEO that she wants to pay employees living wages, but that the grocery has not yet shored up that detail about its operations.

Food justice, according to Herron, is about filling a community’s basic needs.

“We are what we eat, and if people eat shit, they feel like shit,” she said. “If they don’t get anything to eat, they don’t feel like much. I know what it’s like for me when I’m hangry, and I try to eat three meals a day. And I can’t imagine what it’s like to eat a $1 burger once or twice a day and think that I’m going to be able to make rational decisions or feel good about myself.”

To Herron, the budget appropriation is a sign that the city government might have realized what they need to do to actually solve that problem.

“What I see is a response to what we’ve been asking for for years, which is support to see our vision and our dreams to come to reality,” she said. “We’re not necessarily asking for a handout. We’re asking for support to create the things that we know that we have the ability to do in our communities.” But, the city’s response is still “too slow and not enough,” she said.

Herron would like to see Metro Council disinvest in Louisville police and invest in other services, including pumping more money into food justice — something like $30 million for food projects instead of $3.5 million.

With that kind of money, there would be more to go around for other projects like Martin’s and Bell’s.

Herron envisions the three women expanding their partnership to envelop more businesses. Their idea to share suppliers to bring costs down could be expanded to include other parties.

“We imagine that we will be able to help not just those two stores but corner stores, other retail outlets where people are currently able to spend money to access food but not able to access good food,” she said.


Tammy Hawkins in Parkland Neighborhood Food Mart.

PARKLAND NEIGHBORHOOD FOOD MART

Tammy Hawkins, the owner of the Parkland Neighborhood Food Mart, has worked only with Martin and Feed the West — not Herron or Bell. But, she is another Black, female entrepreneur who wants to contribute to and feed her adopted community.

She has owned businesses in the Parkland neighborhood for 10 years. Once a hub of commerce, the area was devastated after 1968 protests over racial inequity, and it never recovered. But, something about the neighborhood stuck with Hawkins when she was looking for a place to open a daycare.

“It just has a lot of kids, a lot of people, but it’s just not a lot of resources for that community,” she said.

So, she gave them one: the daycare. Then, she opened another. And a corner store.

“I’m not just in the neighborhood just to reap a benefit,” Hawkins said. “I’m more or less, I’m always here to help people. Always.”

Hawkins’ first store was robbed and damaged by fire, she said, but she’s now replaced it with the Food Mart, which is bigger. She sells a variety of produce there: lettuce, tomatoes, celery, oranges and apples. It’s open longer than the nearby Kroger, she said: 6:30 a.m. to midnight. Hawkins also sells home essentials and breakfasts and lunches to customers.

“There’s just nowhere close where they would still be able to get a good, hot, affordable meal,” said Hawkins.

Hawkins is also a Feed The West distributor in the neighborhood, which is how she started working with Martin. Hawkins has not connected with Bell and Herron, but she knows the power of joining forces with other people and groups that have similar goals. She’s worked with a church and other women interested in helping the Parkland neighborhood, and it’s helped her grow.

“I mean, knowledge is power, and they have good resources that we all have to give to one another,” she said. “It’s really a great asset.”

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