To Solve Food Access Problem, Cincy Neighborhood Looks to Model from Spain

Adding a twist to the usual cooperative business model.

Apple Street Market owners celebrate at Cincinnati City Hall after their development partners received city funding to acquire and build-out the future site for their market. (Credit: Apple Street Market)

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Diane Hurse, 63, has lived in Cincinnati’s Northside neighborhood for all of the 33 years she has lived in Cincinnati. She raised a family here while working at a bank. When the local Save-A-Lot grocery store shut down in 2013, life got a bit more complicated. Although the Northside still has places where canned food is available, there is no place to get fresh meat and vegetables, according to Hurse.

“We have a car now, [but] we used to have to take three buses to get to the grocery store,” says Hurse.

To fill the gap in her neighborhood, Hurse has joined her neighbors to organize around the creation of Apple Street Market, a unionized, community-owned food cooperative.

“The majority of the people I’ve spoken to, they’re happy about it, [the future market] being walking distance from their home here,” says Hurse.

Apple Street Market is connected to a number of local organizations that are working together to make it a reality. There’s Northsiders Engaged in Sustainable Transformation (NEST), a “conscientious community redevelopment corporation” that brings vacant properties on the Northside back into use. NEST has primarily worked in housing, but last year, working with city government and funders, they secured funding from city council to acquire the former Save-A-Lot building in Northside, which NEST will lease to Apple Street Market.

“This property is at the center of the neighborhood, and it’s one of the largest pieces of property,” says Christopher DeAngelis, the Apple Street Market organizing coordinator. “If it does not get developed, it’s going to drag the neighborhood down.”

The city council funding will also cover the property’s environmental remediation and the market’s construction, according to DeAngelis.

There’s also CAIN, Churches Active in Northside, a faith-based group in the neighborhood that has been helping recruit community owners. The cost of an ownership share in Apple Street Market is $100, or $10 for anyone who qualifies for SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamps), free or reduced school lunch, or Medicaid.

“We want to have at least 2,000 owners before we open,” says DeAngelis. Currently, the project has 1,243 community owners.

It hasn’t been all smooth sailing, DeAngelis admits: “Large institutions that normally one would go to for institutional support … in Cincinnati, that’s a really hard sell because this is the home of the super-center grocery store model, which is a model that creates food deserts. It creates food insecurity. So, people don’t see that as a problem.”

Then there’s the Cincinnati Union Cooperative Initiative (CUCI), which incubates union cooperative businesses. If all goes well, Apple Street Market will be the next addition to the network of union cooperatives CUCI has incubated so far. The first project the incubator launched was the Our Harvest food and farm hub, and it’s also launched an energy efficiency retro-fitting co-op and an affordable housing initiative.

CUCI’s seeds were planted in 2009 following conversations between U.S. Steelworkers and representatives of Spain’s Mondragon cooperative business network, according to Kristen Barker, CUCI’s Executive Director. Mondragon’s network includes 120 worker cooperatives in the Basque region of Spain, employing over 70,000 worker-owners.

The union cooperative model adds a twist to the worker-cooperative model that cities like New York, Cleveland, Rochester, Madison and others are now supporting in various ways as a strategy to encourage the creation of quality jobs. Taking inspiration from the Mondragon cooperatives, the union cooperative model combines the democratically shared decision-making and shared ownership of a co-op business model with a collective bargaining agreement for workers covering wages, benefits, working conditions and other workplace issues. As part of a local union, a union cooperative also gets access to shared resources and collective power that it would not otherwise have, such as the ability to gain access to lower cost, higher quality health insurance, retirement plans, industry and market research, education and training, finance, and public policy initiatives

Launching CUCI was no small task. “I’m the parent of a child with special needs, and people would come over to my house at 9 o’clock when she was in bed, and we would just work, actually, every night,” Barker recalls of back in those early days. “It was a really intense time, but very exciting because we want to create an economy that works for all. Especially those who’ve been historically excluded.”

Barker points to Cooperative Homecare Associates (CHA), a home-healthcare service based in the Bronx that has also adopted the union co-op model. CHA is currently the largest worker cooperative in the United States, with more than 2,000 worker-owners. In Barker’s view, a union co-op is more equipped to reach a larger scale, without compromising its values, than a non-unionized worker cooperative model.

“We are very interested in our co-ops being able to scale with their values intact,” Barker says. “And to maintain participation and transparency and everything we care about.”

Several of CUCI’s founders live in the same Northside neighborhood as Hurse, making the food access issue personal for the organization.

The project needs to raise $700,000 in order to open, DeAngelis says, but he his “aspirational goal” for fundraising is $923,000. The aim is to open the market in 2019. Hurse says she’s ready to bring her skills as a troubleshooter within a bank to the co-op’s finances.

“Any co-op, their biggest challenge is having sufficient working capital to deal with surprises,” DeAngelis says. “They are a new business, and all the market studies in the world, all the customer surveys in the world, are, at best, a compass. They’ll show you how you think you want to go. They’ll help tell you where you’re off course. They are a compass, not a crystal ball.”

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Zoe Sullivan is a multimedia journalist and visual artist with experience on the U.S. Gulf Coast, Argentina, Brazil, and Kenya. Her radio work has appeared on outlets such as BBC, Marketplace, Radio France International, Free Speech Radio News and DW. Her writing has appeared on outlets such as The Guardian, Al Jazeera America and The Crisis.

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Tags: food desertsworker cooperativescincinnati

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