North Minneapolis may be a bona fide food desert, but the folks behind Wirth Cooperative Grocery won't bend to pressure to launch anytime soon.
It's not as if Wirth's organizers don't know the day-to-day struggle of putting fresh meat and produce on the table -- busing to grocery stores in other neighborhoods and piecing together a diet from various food assistance programs in the area.
They just want it to be perfect, which is why the much-anticipated North Side co-op has been seven years in the making now. Some say organizers need to get a serious move on, but maybe a touch of paranoia is not unreasonable for a project as high-risk as creating a community-owned businesses in a traditionally low-income part of town, where even the term co-op leaves a bad taste in people's mouths.
The basic idea for food cooperatives originated as a grassroots alternative to chain grocery stores, where members decide what is purchased and distributed. In the Twin Cities, where 12 popular co-ops have flourished with an emphasis on healthy and organic food, they've also taken on a reputation of being way too expensive, says Wirth volunteer Candy Bakion.
When you say "organic" in some neighborhoods, people immediately think of $10 chickens, she says. "Our biggest challenge is it's got to be for the people. If we open this co-op, it has to be affordable for the people here, and not have some ritzy people come into the neighborhood and change the neighborhood."
Bakion is a single mother of five currently in between jobs. It helps that her kids are the type to eat just about anything she puts in front of them, but most days it's a struggle to fill the fridge, she says. All summer they worked and ate out of the community garden and ate for free in the park as part of a lunch program. In the winter, she says, many of her neighbors are depending more on the local corner stores.
Having something like Wirth up and running would make her life a whole lot easier, but Bakion says she's willing to wait however long it takes for organizers to bulletproof the start-up for all the regular pitfalls of co-ops, such as low membership and insufficient foot traffic.
Jenny Warner, president of the Wirth Cooperative Grocery, says the group received a $500,000 federal grant last year to nail down a brick-and-mortar site. They've been eyeing 555 Gerard in the Harrison neighborhood, and now they're in the process of applying for site control while trying to double their current membership from 220 people to at least 400 before breaking ground.
In general, co-ops take seven or eight years of planning before launch, Warner says. Wirth is certainly pushing it, but with careful planning it could be very much worth it.