Thousands of West Dayton residents who lack easy access to fresh fruits and vegetables could soon have a full-service food market close to home.
The west side has been without a convenient source of fresh produce since 2008, when a neighborhood Kroger grocery store shut down. Since then, city officials have tried attracting a new grocer without success.
The story could have ended there. But now, nearly 10 years later, one community group plans to open a co-operative grocery store called Gem City Market. Advocates say it will finally bring healthier food back to the west side.
Lela Klein, executive director of the Greater Dayton Union Co-Op Initiative, the organization behind the market effort, says the project was part of a larger grassroots effort that materialized about three years ago.
“And at the time," she says, "there was this question raised of, can this community support a grocery store, and can they do it themselves?"
After the Gettysburg Ave. Kroger shut down, the city made several attempts to attract a new grocer to the area. But, companies declined citing a potential lack of profits.
And, without a real grocery store, West Dayton quickly became what the federal government classifies as a "food desert" – a neighborhood without a real supermarket, where residents must travel long distances to access fresh produce.
FDA studies show many residents who live in food deserts are forced to rely on highly-processed foods from convenience stores, which can lead to serious health problems.
Gem City Market Board Chair Amaha Salesee says transportation was an additional concern for many people in West Dayton who decided to trek outside the neighborhood to purchase fresh food.
“The residents are required to take one bus, or maybe even two buses in Dayton,” says Salesee. “So you’re having to calculate three hours of travel time just to go get your food.”
Klein says many of the market’s first committee members had to make those long trips for produce, too.
Finally, members sat down to look for an alternative. Klein says they studied many options before eventually agreeing on a plan.
“We looked around and we asked, how are other cities with food deserts operating grocery stores, and how are they successful?”
Ultimately, the group selected the co-operative model. A co-op is a business that’s owned by its members instead of a corporation.
In this case, Gem City Market employees would purchase a stake in the store, and customers would have an opportunity to join for a membership fee. Together, they would have a say in making big decisions about the store.
Klein says they settled on the co-op model because they wanted to encourage heavy community involvement. They knew it would take a lot of work.
“We knew that, in this instance, we still had to build a business case, we couldn’t purely go on mission alone,” Klein says. “The need is very extreme, but that also means the dollars and cents really have to make sense because, you know, there’s going to be very thin margins.”
So, organizers created a business plan. They commissioned a market study to figure out where to locate the store. And they surveyed community members about their grocery needs. Then, after establishing a Gem City Market board of directors to oversee the project, organizers presented their vision to the community.
And the response, Klein says, was immediately positive.
“Every meeting we’ve had has been standing-room only," she says. "We’re really felt this outpouring of support and love from the neighborhoods, which has been great.”
Since the monthly community meetings began earlier this year, more than 600 people have purchased a membership in Gem City Market. That funding will be used to support the operation of the store, officials say.
Organizers are also trying to raise money to construct a new building to house the market. Construction is projected to cost more than $3 million. So far, the project has received grant funding from the Dayton Rotary Club, and insurance giant Caresource. Klein says they are also pursuing other sources of funding to get the project off the ground.
West Dayton resident Jalica Corley says she’s looking forward to Gem City’s opening. She typically has to travel at least four miles to buy fresh produce for her family.
“I’m most excited about the vegetables. I love vegetables, fresh vegetables, that’s all I do," she says. "And I just thought that, me especially having small children, having them grow up and see that we can get good quality fresh produce, that would be perfect.”
If Gem City's fundraising effort goes as planned, construction will begin early next year. The store is projected to open in the summer of 2019.