Urban Greens: Creating a Sustainable Link in a New Food System

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Most grocery stores in the United States are just a stop along the profit chain of our food system, between the shipping industry and the refrigerator.  They rely on a compromise of price and ingredients to create the illusion of plenty. In many cases today, these “super” markets are including some locally sourced items, organic fruits and vegetables, “grass-fed” meat and “cage-free” eggs in an attempt to satisfy a small but growing demand for food that is safer, more nutritious, more humanely produced and less carbon intensive.  But also, in many urban and rural communities, there are no markets at all.

Clearly, this system of food delivery stands as a road block to “food sovereignty” (“the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agricultural systems.” – Declaration of Nyeleni, the first global forum on food sovereignty, Mali, 2007.) While farmer’s markets and community supported agriculture have begun to form a way for many people to gain some control over their food choices, those solutions tend to be socially, economically and culturally limited as well.

Breaking Tradition

“If you look at the average products that are usually available at the farmer’s market in terms of produce, its generally produce that is aligned with upper-middle-class or middle-class White or Western eating traditions; you’re not going to see a lot of produce being grown and marketed for immigrant populations,” notes Philip Trevvett of Urban Greens, a food co-op in Providence, RI. 

The mission of Urban Greens Food Co-op is to provide direct access to affordable, local, natural products through a full-scale, community-owned grocery store.  Begun as a “buying club” in 2001, Urban Greens is now on track to open a full-scale, one-stop-shop food coop store in south Providence by the end of 2017 or early 2018, according to Trevvett, volunteer project director for the new store, which is being designed to meet two important needs in the community: food access and food infrastructure.

“One part of our mission is explicitly increasing access to healthy foods in an underserved area of South Providence where there aren’t many food choices, there’s no full-scale grocery store and there are only very small markets that have quite limited choices in terms of fresh foods, fruits and vegetables,” Trevvett says.   “A big part is increasing access to quality goods, whole foods, produce—foods that allow us to be transparent about where the food comes from and how it was produced. So one part of the mission is very food-justice related and it’s food access.”

The other important mission piece for Urban Greens is as a keystone in the bridge linking the community with local foods.  “There’s no grocery store in Rhode Island right now that does a lot of supporting local foods,” Trevvett points out, “where you could go to a one-stop-shopping environment and purchase things from local farmers.”  This puts local small farmers in a bind, because markets that do carry local produce want more volume than these farms can manage.

Working with Farmers

“But our co-op is able to work with a lot of the smaller farmers that can’t work with the chain grocery stores,” Trevvett explains. “And that’s really a key part of building a local food system, helping those farmers who operate on a different level and scale, which is the key to improving and increasing food sovereignty and food independence both regionally and in terms of the very local, hyper-local situation in Rhode Island.”

Trevvett points out that the new store will also help to meet the “culturally appropriate” tenet of food sovereignty, by drawing membership from a diverse local community.  “In the neighborhoods that we’re serving, there’s a very high immigrant population, especially Liberian, Ghanaian, and Nigerian, as well as Southeast Asian, including Laotian, Hmong, and Cambodian; and also Latino immigrants, primarily of Guatemalan and Dominican descent.

“So making sure that we’re getting input from the different populations about what they want to see in the store is really key,” he adds, describing ongoing information gathering Urban Greens is doing.  “We ask people what they want in the store, what produce they’re looking for, what items of groceries they want, what cooking oil, all of that sort of thing.  Our hope is that we will integrate different goods that represent the different diets, cultural diets, and the diverse populations in the community.”

Finding the Balance

For any food co-op starting up, there’s an enormous amount of planning and a balancing act between the focus on the needs and wants of members and customers and what will make the store successful and sustainable, Trevvett explains.  The idea behind Urban Greens’ new store is “a one-stop-shopping environment, not a specialty store, though it will have a lot of items that will make it a unique shopping experience in Rhode Island.

“But if you don’t have the staples and you’re becoming a specialty store, you’re eliminating a lot of people who would otherwise be interested in shopping there,” Trevvett adds. “So step one is definitely making sure most of the store is stocked with the staples that people want while also making sure we know what the relevant specialty items are the people really want.  And that’s a very difficult balance.”  Understanding and maintaining that balance will be the job of the general manager, a position for which Urban Greens is currently conducting a nationwide search, one of the last steps in a long process begun when the Urban Greens buying club started 15 years ago.

“The buying club started quite simply as a club for people who lived in the neighborhood, where there wasn’t fresh produce access,” Trevvett says.  “It was several years before folks started to think about what would it take for us to make a food co-op happen. After a couple of years, we incorporated and from that point it’s been almost 10 years from incorporation to get to where this will open.” 

There were a number of obstacles, some delays, and a lot of learning along the way, Trevvett admits, but many of those problems don’t have to be repeated by co-ops starting up today, for a number of reasons.

Support for Co-ops

“In the last three years or so there has been incredible growth in support for co-op startups,” he notes. “The Food Co-op Initiative has really strengthened the work that they’re doing, especially in the Northeast, and the Neighboring Food Co-ops Association has been fantastic about helping startups get organized, connect to each other, connect to existing co-ops.  

“Eight years ago, that didn’t exist and there wasn’t nearly as much support or advocacy.   Now we are on a weekly call with other start ups and if I have a question I can shoot off an email to a few people and get free support and input from them,” Trevvett says. “The support now is much better; back then it was much harder to learn as you go.”  But discerning community needs is one area where each co-op has to find its own answers, Trevvett says. 

“For any urban co-op that’s opening in a mixed-income area, this is a challenge, and it’s an ongoing one. Co-ops are associated with a certain clientele and certain customer bases—a White customer base, hippy or yuppie or gentrified customer base, and I think those would all be to some extent accurate as to how co-ops are perceived.  But that misses a lot of people who are part of the tradition of co-ops, such as African-American populations, and how co-ops exist in other countries under different names and how shared wealth works,” Trevvett notes. 

Including More People

“But we are really committed to working against that image of what a co-op is for—who it serves—and making sure that we’re doing everything to be inclusive on our board, in our membership, in what we’re selling and in how we are messaging. That's going to be an ongoing effort to which we are committed.”

Trevvett notes that opening a co-op in a wealthy area is easier because “people of comfortable financial means can invest.” He says that while such co-ops still play a role in food sovereignty and bring more local and less industrial foods to the community “there’s a different challenge in opening a store in a mixed-income area, where a lot of people may be able to shop there but there’re very few people who can afford to put $2000 or $5000 towards the initial capital needs, and when you’re trying to raise initial capital, that’s a key part of it.”  Trevvett explains that Urban Greens structured its capital fundraising differently.

“We made it a direct public offering, which meant you didn’t have to be a member to invest.  There are a lot of people in Rhode Island who get why it’s important to to get a store in a lower-, mixed-income area that’s underserved and who are excited about investing in something local.”  Because the Urban Greens effort was a direct public offering, they’ve been able to reach a broader, more affluent population “and get people to invest because they saw the value of investing locally or supporting this project at a different level.  

“That’s a way to get the wealth there, if you’re serving an area that doesn’t have the wealth, and that is another part of the food-sovereignty picture.   That’s been an interesting piece of our puzzle,” Trevvett says.

Building for Success

Finally, he says, if a co-op has a mission to overcome injustices and failures in our current food systems, it will have to be successful, and that means financially feasible and sustainable.

“Obviously I believe the more co-ops the better, but they have to be financially feasible.  It’s such a difficult balance to continue to push a mission at the same time as you’re trying to make sure that your project is financially feasible for the long-term and sustainable and I think that’s something that’s unique in how health-food co-ops operate,” he says. 

“It’s one of the aspects people are maybe not conscious of when you’re starting to work on it.  Understanding that balance is a key starting point and the other is talk to people who are in food co-ops; food co-op folks are incredibly helpful and always ready to give input and I think that’s one of the great ways that co-ops have helped to grow what they do in different regions.”

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