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Start-up Food Co-op Combats A Rural Food Desert in West Virginia

fresh fruit and vegetables
Jessica Lilly/West Virginia Public Broadcasting
Customers are greeted by a row of fresh fruits and veggies as they enter the Green Grocer in Alderson.

When the only grocery store in the small community of Alderson, West Virginia closed last November, it cut residents off from their only local option for fresh produce, meats and cheeses.

“They just closed her down,” explained resident Rick Bostic, “We were told we had to go to Lewisburg or Henten or somewhere else to get groceries.”

This story was originally published by West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

The only nearby stores were a Dollar General store and a few gas stations that sold mostly canned and packaged food goods. Bostic and other locals had to drive 15-25 miles to nearby towns to buy fresh food staples, a significant hardship for many residents in this community with a population just over a thousand.

But there was a glimmer of hope tucked in the corner of a local gift shop: a tiny co-op, selling beans, nuts and seeds, run by a local nonprofit, the Alderson Community Food Hub.

Signs to raise awareness of the fresh fruits available in the store.
Credit Jessica Lilly/West Virginia Public Broadcasting
Organizers of the Green Grocer have put up more signs to try and raise awareness of the fresh fruits available in the store.

“Food is such a fundamental part of people’s daily lives that it’s almost like a service,” said Kevin Johnson, the Food Hub’s board-of-directors president, “Like when a small town loses its hardware store, it’s not, you’re losing one of three hardware stores and there’s another place to shop. You’re losing your one hardware store and people register that as their town’s identity is changing.”

Food deserts are a growing problem in West Virginia and across the country. The USDA defines a food desert as a part of the country where people don’t have access to fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthful whole foods. Parts of more than 40 counties in West Virginia endure some sort of limited food access and the number is growing as more and more grocery stores close their doors.

The Hub runs a community garden and a farmers market. It was looking to expand the co-op, but now there’s a sense of urgency.

"When the grocery store closed it started feeling more like an imperative," said Anne Osborne, who has been involved with the Hub for about four years.

With the help of two grants from a local foundation and an Indiegogo campaign, the Hub raised about $86,000 to buy things like refrigerators and wire shelving. The Wolf Creek Gallery Gift Shop owner agreed to move her gallery to make room for the new, expanded co-op. The Hub named the new store, the Green Grocer.

Now, you’ll find folks sitting at one of the tables by the windows eating lunch from the café while a steady flow of traffic strolls by shelves of strawberries, lettuce, beets, snow peas, green beans and corn. Osborne says the project is meant to provide healthy food to consumers and to provide a market for local farmers.

"Nothing against the grocery store but most of the produce that was carried there was from out of state or not local and our mission has always been to support the local economy," Osborne said.

Store manager Ann Knotts says the customers are creating more demand on the local farmers. "They’re a busy bunch of farmers," Knotts said.

Knotts says the project is doing well financially. The co-op keeps its costs down by having volunteers on staff. Helping to run the register and the store is volunteer Mari Moody. She moved to Monroe County in the 70’s as part of the back-to-the-land movement.

"I feel like I’ve been very, very fortunate in my life," Moody said, "and it’s important to give back. I’m semi retired; I have the time. I think this is especially special because of the local produce and meats that we buy."

Volunteers also help with other odd jobs like cleaning.  It helps to keep prices low for this small non-profit co-op.

The space in the Green Grocer and cafe is limited. The store just started offering fresh meats in June. Knotts says the store won't please everyone, and is still getting to know the community's needs. But so far, Knotts says, business is good.

"We see an increase all the time," Knotts said. "Word of mouth has been tremendous. As you can see it’s pretty steady and sometimes we’re swamped, and that’s a good thing too."

Johnson says folks in the community have been supportive of the project because losing the grocery store was such a big loss to the area.

"There certainly is a need for greater access to fresh food and communities like Alderson all over the country, but certainly here," Johnson said.

Organizers want to continue to grow and reach more community members. The group is raising money to help distribute food to seniors who don’t drive. They also hope this project can serve as an example to other communities losing grocery stores because of falling populations and competition from chain stores that don’t stock much fresh food.

Jessica Lilly is the host of the podcast Inside Appalachia,which is produced by West Virginia Public Broadcasting.