For the first time in about two decades, two grocery stores could be coming to west Charlotte — where many of the residents lack access to affordable, healthy food.
It’s part of a plan by community partners and researchers from UNC Charlotte and Johnson C. Smith University that was presented to the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners on Tuesday.
About 15% of Mecklenburg County residents live in a food desert, defined as a low-income neighborhood without access to a full-service grocery store. According to the USDA’s most recent food access research report from 2017, 12.8% of the U.S. population lives in low-income and low-access areas.
As Charlotte grows, west Charlotte, home to much of the county’s Black community and the city’s poorest neighborhoods, still lacks access to transportation and viable, healthy food options nearby.
Business models for traditional, major grocery stores don’t support bringing a store to west Charlotte, the Observer previously reported. For many in west Charlotte, their closest supermarket option is the Walmart on Wilkinson Boulevard, and it’s not a walkable distance for much of the community.
The effects of food insecurity are wide-reaching, too — beyond an increased likelihood of health problems.
“When residents talk about grocery stores, we think of it as a symbol of community stability, a place of employment. Being denied that has an impact on the sense of the value of the place,” said Byron White, associate provost for Urban Research and Community Engagement at UNC Charlotte. “Bringing this enterprise to the neighborhood would address all of these things.”
In January, county commissioners discussed solutions to food insecurity, but none of the options, from development grants to land banking, were deemed appropriate.
At this week’s meeting, White presented a proposed solution to west Charlotte’s food insecurity problem that the research group landed on after nine months of studying the issue — two for-profit co-op grocery stores.
A larger flagship store at the corner of West Boulevard and Clanton Road could be in service in two years, and a smaller “fast-start store” on Beatties Ford Road could be in operation as soon as a year from now — through a combination of $1.7 million from the county and about another $6 million from private donors and an anchor tenant.
But they won’t just be typical grocery stores. They would be neighborhood hubs that would sustain themselves through profit and the community would invest in, White said.
A co-operative is owned by community members and employees from the area. People buy shares into the stores, an elected board of directors would run the stores and profits would go to the shareholders.
The community partners and universities decided on for-profit grocery stores because they saw that was what made co-ops most sustainable and long-lasting in food-needy communities.
“Part of what we think makes them sustainable is that they run like a business. It has to compete in the marketplace,” White said. “But because it’s a co-op, you think about that social mission as well. You can really think creatively about what the grocery store does, even as a for-profit, that provides social impact.”
And the stores will provide more than food. The universities and their partners pitched them as community centers delivering services that traditional stores can’t provide.
In the two grocery stores, there will be space for classes and instruction about preparing and eating healthy food, and that space can also be used by churches, schools and community grassroots organizations.
A planned community kitchen will provide opportunity for food preparation demonstrations by local culinary students and dietitians, and also serve as a space to rent out by local entrepreneurs.
“We really believe this will be a gathering spot,” White said. “If you’re really going to make it viable and really have it be something that is valued by the community, it needs features that, quite honestly, traditional grocery stores can’t take on.
“The idea that it’s a space that a community owns and feels a connection to… all of these things are necessary.”
The plan requires county commissioner approval. While most seemed in favor of the plan on Tuesday night, county manager Dena Diorio raised several questions about planning documents and the business model that White says the team hopes to provide feedback on in the coming weeks.
“It was well-received by commissioners. We were encouraged by that,” White said. “We worked on this for a long time… We are hopeful we will address those legitimate questions and that the county will see this as a worthy investment of public resources.”