Halifax’s north end has been without a grocery store for over twenty-five years, but now a grassroots organization from the area is trying to change that.
Published in the July issue of Progress magazine.
About three years ago psychologist Norman Greenberg had an idea that might soon bring healthy and affordable food back to Halifax’s north end. At the time, he was helping establish a small grocery outlet for tenants in a building on Gottingen Street, but as that store took off, he realized that a grocery store wasn’t just a need inside that building. “It was a need in the whole neighborhood,” he remembers clearly thinking.
It’s been a need for over twenty-five years, in fact, which was when Sobeys left the Gottingen area. Today, the two closest grocery stores are relatively far away (over a twenty minute walk for some), especially for the large elderly population living in the area and the many residents on fixed incomes who struggle to pay the rent, let alone cab fare. According to the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, 60% of the people living in the north end are low-income earners.
So, Greenberg got to work. After meeting with and being encouraged by Co-op Atlantic, he and the North End Health Clinic invited the community to form a steering committee that would try to bring a grocery store back to the area. Initially consisting of about fifteen people, the committee called itself and the future store “Community Carrot Co-op.”
From day one, they agreed it should be a co-op because the entire exercise was about filling a social need in the neighborhood. It just seemed natural to include as many people from the community as possible in the decision-making process. The idea was to have members pay a small fee for perks like voting on issues related to the business. Non-members could still shop at the store but they wouldn’t get the perks of part ownership.
About a year after forming, the committee heard about the Aviva Community Fund, a nationwide competition that gives out $1 million for community projects. Thirty participants get to a final by garnering the most online votes. Aviva’s judges then decide which ten projects receive the grand prizes. Carrot’s decision to enter was one of the best they’ve made so far. Not only did they win $115,000 but they also galvanized more people behind them and started securing a customer base.
“The support—both from individuals living in the area and community organizations—has been unbelievable during and after the competition,” says Greenberg. “Our campaign was all about knocking on doors—the library, the YMCA, all the organizations in the neighborhood—so that they became familiar with what we’re trying to do. Their support has been wide and it’s been consistent.”
Another one of the organizations firmly behind Carrot is the North End Business Association (NEBA). Executive Director Bernard Smith is on Carrot’s board of directors, which formed shortly after the big win. “I get involved in things that provide services and supports to this area, and I saw this one as a very important need,” says Smith. “When you have a public meeting with over a hundred people and a high proportion of them immediately identify a food store in the Gottingen area as an essential requirement, you realize that it probably is an essential requirement.”
Right now, the board is close to signing a lease, but it hasn’t been easy getting to this point. “The north end is a growing neighborhood so we’re competing for spaces and it is challenging,” says Greenberg. “Landlords want to be sure that we have our ducks in a row before they hand it off to us because they want viability, they want a solid lease.”
Once that lease is signed, things should move quickly. According to the conditions of the Aviva competition, the store must open by December 1, 2013, or they could lose some funding. That won’t leave much time for renovations or installations, hiring staff, and, most importantly, finding food sources.
Greenberg isn’t worried, though, and says they’ll likely use Co-op Atlantic as their initial food provider. Over time they’ll increase the amount of food made or grown in Nova Scotia. “We’re really focussed now on the challenge we have in the province that most of the food we eat comes from away,” he says. The Nova Scotia Federation of Agriculture estimates that only about 8.4% of the province’s diet is produced on Nova Scotia farms. “That’s a startling statistic, so the procurement of local foods is one of our goals, and we’re really hoping to accomplish it.”
Whether some or most of the food comes from the province, Carrot’s supporters say it has to be healthy. One of those supporters is Fred Connors, a nutrition advocate who sits on the NEBA’s board, and owns a successful salon, art gallery and café in the north end. “There is a tremendous amount of good things packed into food,” he says. “When we eat well, we are able to function better as people, function better as communities. Where there are healthier food options, there are healthier communities in every single respect.”
Greenberg agrees. “Having it close by for people to walk to, for people who don’t have a lot of money are important reasons for supporting this. But the core reason that started all of it is that it’s just healthier to eat well.”
Three years later, that core reason is still at the heart of Greenberg’s original idea. The only difference is that he now has an entire community behind it.