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Food Cooperative Eyed For Downtown Louisville

A push to bring more fresh food options into downtown Louisville is getting new support.

Backers of a food cooperative are in the early stages of establishing a business model that could take the idea from concept to opening day.

Cassia Herron is one of the organizers of the effort. She said the "time is right" to begin boosting food options in the neighborhoods in and around downtown.

Herron said with support for local food purchasing models surging, the city needs a more reliable food source than farmers' markets and Fresh Stop Markets, which are pop-up markets operated by the non-profit New Roots, to meet consumer demand.

"This is a chance for real community building," she said.

No location has been selected for the potential food co-op, Herron said. Ideally, the project would be developed in one of the neighborhoods directly surrounding downtown, like Russell, Smoketown or Shelby Park, she said.

Setting up shop in in one of those neighborhoods could bring more food options to people who currently have limited options for easily accessible fresh food. The loss of the First Link grocery store and the fact that the Second Street Kroger is for sale leave a hole for customers in the area.

Herron said the co-op would seek memberships, which would likely cost up to $200 annually. She said there may be adjustments or payment plan options for low-income residents. Members are also likely to get benefits, like discounts and special access to community spaces, which are also being planned for the project.

Earlier this week, about 50 people turned out for an informational meeting about the co-op concept. A bulk of the attendees, Herron said, where white people who already have access to fresh food.

The challenge -- or opportunity -- she said, will be to ensure the co-op has a diverse membership. Many of the areas immediately surrounding downtown are historically African-American neighborhoods.

About 1,000 members are needed to afford the initial $1 million investment for the co-op, Herron said.

Economic development officials with Louisville Metro government support the idea. Potential city support could come through assistance in acquiring land for the co-op site, for example.

In a letter appealing for financial support through a grant from the Kresge Foundation, Theresa Zawacki, a senior policy analyst for Louisville Forward, pledged to support the food co-op by assisting in site selection, loan assistance and food suppliers.

In the letter, Zawacki praised the organizers' work and their partnership with New Roots for the focus on community engagement and commitment to "trust, equity and sustainability."

While there is a lot yet to be decided regarding the food co-op, there are a few certainties, Herron said.

For one, there is a demand.

Despite higher poverty levels in neighborhoods like Russell and Smoketown, the residents who live there have purchasing power, especially for food.

"I think it's a misnomer that you have to have certain people to support retail," Herron said.

Additionally, Herron said the food co-op will be a catalyst for future economic development. It can be a model, she said, to other residents or aspiring entrepreneurs that an idea can spark change.

"This is a chance for real people to come together and have a say about what happens in their community," she said. "Instead of waiting for someone else to do it for us."

Jacob Ryan is an award-winning investigative reporter who joined LPM in 2014. Email Jacob at jryan@lpm.org.

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