Monday, August 30, 2010

Creating Art in the Grocery Aisles

At PCM we've been envisioning ways to integrate the arts into our future community food store. Some of the things we plan to do include hosting performances on an outdoor stage, exhibiting the work of local artists on the store inside walls,  having a mural painted on the store's outside walls, and playing music in the store from local artists. Our belief is that grocery stores, as cornerstones of neighborhoods, can offer important space for social, cultural and creative interactions.

So we were thrilled to learn about Super G Mart, a 75,000 square foot international supermarket and public flea market in Greensboro, NC. Super G Mart is taking the idea of a funky and hip food store to the next level. The store has put together an "Experiential Residency Program" in which artists, thinkers and practitioners develop projects right in the store itself. The Residents are given a 144 square feet of space to do whatever they want.  As a post on the store's blog says: "This space can act as a central hub for exploring the Super G, an actual site for social engagement, a temporary resource for the public, or simply a place to sit and do nothing."

So far the artist residents have done some amazing projects at Super G Mart ranging from photo installations to film screenings to live/DJ music to selling their own crafts. (You can click here to see an interview of some of the residents in the program). Super G is proving that our theory that stores can be and do a lot more. FOr more info check out the Super G Mart Experiential Residency Program blog:

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Creative Distribution Networks = Affordable Fresh Food

I recently listened to a presentation by Mike Curtin, Executive Director of DC Central Kitchen (DCCK), as part of a webinar on the Wallace HUFED Center. Mike talked about how, because DCCK’s supply of donated food was decreasing as food companies tightened their inventory controls, the organization had to shift from seeking food donations to finding a more reliable supply of fresh food for their clients.

DCCK started reaching out to local and regional growers and buying surplus produce directly from those growers. In many cases these growers weren’t able to sell all of their products to large food companies, often because the product didn’t fit the uniformity and aesthetic requirements of those companies. Being a creative organization, DCCK was able to take advantage of the surplus food that was unwanted by the industry and began replacing the food products it was buying from wholesale distributors with food products bought directly from the growers.

One outstanding result of this shift is that clients of DC shelters are now eating up to 70% local product in their meals. This beats out even the most local-food-focused retail stores, restaurants and school cafeterias.

Another important result is that DCCK has been able to cut its own food costs dramatically, even as it has increased the quantity of food it’s purchasing each year. Mike showed a chart comparing the cost of purchasing food from a local farmer coop to the cost of purchasing food from Sysco, one of the largest food distributors in the nation. There was a marked difference in the cost of the products between the coop farmer and Sysco, which is ironic since Sysco has built its brand on being the cheapest food service distributor in the industry.
To explain how DCCK was able to reduce its food costs so much Mike simply said this: “If you’re creative in creating distribution networks this local food can actually be sourced at a significantly discounted cost from what it would cost to buy it…. from the national wholesalers.” I highlight Mike’s point and the experience of DCCK because it counters the common argument that the cost of food is often a prohibitive factor to making healthy food available in low-income urban communities. What DCCK has shown is that, with the real and direct relationships, creativity and genuine effort, it is entirely possible to provide large volumes of quality food at a very reasonable cost.

The key difference between DCCK and those who make the argument that healthy food can’t be made available affordably is that DCCK thinks outside of the box of the mainstream food distribution system, while the critics are often embedded within that mainstream food distribution system and are tied to its conventionalities. Thankfully, the approach of People’s Community Market will be much more aligned with DCCK than the mainstream players. And this approach – rooted in real and direct relationships, creativity and genuine effort - will be a key way that PCM will also ensure that West Oakland residents can always find affordable fresh food on the store’s shelves. DCCK has proven that when you get creative and think with a fresh perspective, fresh food becomes easy.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

A food culture revolution in the grocery store

A key idea for People's Community Market is that it will be much more than just a grocery store and retailer of food products. While PCM will be a reliable and trusted fresh food retailer that does an outstanding job at offering great products that the community truly desires, selling food will not be all that PCM will do and be about. There is much more potential for grocery stores to play a meaningful role in communities, including helping to preserve and reactivate cultural traditions and relationships to food. One way that PCM intends to demonstrate that potential is by helping to ignite a dynamic cultural food renaissance in West Oakland. 

West Oakland has a rich and vast array of cultures, social networks and food traditions that reach back at least several generations. Many of those cultures and traditions were brought to West Oakland by people who relocated from places such as the Southern States, Latin America and Asia. But over the last couple of generations many of the food traditions have begun to slip away as residents depend on an industrial food system and corporate supermarket industry that are largely void of these traditional cultures. Yet, as we interact with and hear from the community, it's clear that there is a strong desire among many residents to be more connected with their food cultures and traditions.

This desire presents an opportunity for a grocery store to play a role in rebuilding the community's cultural fabric and relationship to food. PCM is planning all kinds of creative and unconventional ways to stimulate and provoke conversation and awareness about West Oakland's food cultures. From offering culturally-oriented food products to hosting workshops/classes/speakers about food cultures to using performance art and other forms of creative expression to explore the rich landscape of ideas and issues pertaining to food in the community, PCM will respond to and support the community's desires for a meaningful and interesting relationship to food that connects to cultural traditions, histories and values. And all of this will be done right in the grocery store itself so that customers can, if desired, conveniently attend a class or performance or other activity while on their shopping trip.

One of our criticisms of many supermarkets is that they often feel like giant, sterile warehouses void of any real culture, creativity or heart. But it doesn't have to be this way. If the people managing and running a store allow themselves to be more creative and to think outside of the box, the possibilities are endless. Stores can become community and cultural centers. They can become hubs of community activity and interaction. They can help invigorate excitement about the role of food in people's lives. Stores can help facilitate more meaningful interactions between eaters, their food and the people who helped to grow and provide that food. And they can become centers of inspiration for re-imagining the way our communities are developed, feed themselves and co-exist with the world around them.

A food culture revolution is happening in this country. Even in food desert communities many residents want more than just access to good food. PCM is planning to become a model for how that food revolution can be given life inside of a grocery store by providing as much space for and attention to culture, tradition, history and relationships as to the food products that are on the store's shelves.