UNC Charlotte researcher is ‘very confident’ of plan to bring co-op grocery store to West Boulevard

Q&A with UNC Charlotte's Byron White, who facilitated a nine-month study that recommends building two co-op grocery stores in west Charlotte to address food insecurity.

It’s been more than 20 years since the West Boulevard corridor had a full-service grocery store. The area is designated by Mecklenburg County as food insecure, which means residents don’t have reliable access to quality, affordable, nutritious food.

At last week’s meeting of the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners, Byron White, associate provost for research and community engagement at UNC Charlotte, put forth a plan to address that disparity.

The plan, nine months in the making, calls for an independent co-op to manage a for-profit grocery store at the corner of West Boulevard and Clanton Road.

That concept would first be tested at a smaller co-op store on Beatties Ford Road.

Both stores could be operational within two years, White told commissioners.

In a Q&A with QCity Metro, White talks about the economic factors that have kept the major grocery store chains from building in west Charlotte, even as wealthier parts of the city have seen a proliferation of high-end grocery stores. He also talks about why he is optimistic about the co-op plan, which was developed in partnership with westside stakeholders and Johnson C. Smith University.

His answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.

But first, some background:

The concept: Co-op grocery stores are owned and operated by community stakeholders and often serve as community hubs. Under the westside proposal, the two stores would host classes and offer resources about cooking and eating healthy food. They also could serve as meeting spaces for churches or neighborhood groups.

Why it matters: About 15% of Mecklenburg residents live in areas without convenient access to a full-service grocery store — a.k.a., a food desert. The majority of those residents are poor and Black.

The cost: The two stores — one measuring about 12,500 square feet; the other about 4,400 square feet — would cost $7 million to $8 million to launch, according to the plan. The county would be asked to contribute $1.7 million to cover pre-construction and pre-operational costs. The rest would be covered by private donors and an anchor tenant.

County commissioners would have to vote to approve the project, which still faces some hurdles.

Byron White
Byron White, associate provost for research and community engagement at UNC Charlotte, presents the “Tackling Food Insecurity in West Charlotte” plan to Mecklenburg County commissioners on Oct. 12, 2021. (Photo: Screenshot)

Q. It’s been decades since a grocery store was on the West Boulevard corridor, which encompasses 19 communities and a major thoroughfare in Charlotte. In your presentation to county commissioners, you referred to this as “supermarket redlining.” Is that what the research found?

Byron White: It’s the same economic factors that define what’s a good neighborhood and a bad neighborhood… And so, if you have a neighborhood that’s suppressed economically, it’s not going to show the numbers that are used to justify establishing a grocery store, and so it’s kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy. So that’s the challenge there. That’s comparable to the same kind of challenges of marginalized schools and marginalized housing and the other kinds of economic impacts in neighborhoods and disparities.

Q. From the research you presented, there are glaring health disparities in areas identified as food deserts. Is that alone the cause of those health disparities?

BW: Absolutely not. The point there wasn’t to give this direct correlation that, you know, all of those health conditions are due to one singular issue that is the lack of fresh food. Neither is it to say that a grocery store solves all of those issues. In fact, we know just from the research we looked at that just putting a grocery store in the neighborhood, in fact, does not necessarily change eating and food-buying behaviors by itself. But it does seem to be that, if you’re going to address those very serious health issues, and they need to be addressed by a number of different strategies, fundamental to all of them is that residents are able to conveniently purchase fresh, healthy food. And so we believe this is at the core of any strategies aimed at addressing those health issues. This is fundamental to any success we might have.

Q. You also said in your presentation that “traditional grocery stores aren’t coming to save the day.” Is the co-op model the kind of market this community needs? Is that what the research showed, and is that what residents want?

BW: Residents want a full-service grocery store that has fresh food and produce, non-perishable products, grab-and-go, hot food that’s prepared, that’s healthy. That’s what residents want. The working group determined that the food co-op was the best way to get there, because the way to make a grocery store work on West Boulevard is going to require a more creative set of marketing and wraparound services support for that grocery store. Those things are going to be needed. There’s a recognition that, if the economic conditions were there to support a traditional grocery store, it would be one there.

But that doesn’t mean a grocery store can’t be viable. It just means that that grocery store would need to be more creative and comprehensive in the way it operates. And so, when we looked at how to create that kind of grocery store, the working group determined that a food co-op provided the best combination of business competitiveness and social support. I should say that this kind of grocery store is not a second-tier grocery store. In fact, we really believe that it’s the grocery store of the future. So this is an opportunity for west Charlotte to get ahead of the game and have the kind of grocery store that other communities will want. 

Q. You emphasized that this flagship store would be an independent co-op. So this wouldn’t be a Weaver Street Market franchise that’s been eyed for the Historic West End?  

BW: This is the same model as Weaver Street Market, but it will not be run by Weaver Street Market. 

[Related: “The time is now.” Community leaders push forward on bringing a co-op grocery store to the West End]

Q. There have been a few efforts in the past to bring a co-op market to west Charlotte. For whatever reason, none panned out. Do you know what went wrong and why those efforts failed?  

BW: We really didn’t give a deep assessment into what hasn’t gone well. We learned from past efforts and took the best of what they’ve presented and built on those lessons and learned from other models around the country to arrive at this proposal. So we were really looking ahead at what will work more than trying to assess what hasn’t worked in the past. 

Q. Okay, and what do you think the difference would be now? Is there more hope or optimism that this plan will work?

BW: The things that we think are in our favor now — and again, not comparing it to what hasn’t been there — this is a more comprehensive model of what would be offered. For instance, a community kitchen and an educational component. We have been able to identify key partners, investors and participants in the delivery of various aspects of what the store would offer. They are ready to go. It’s certainly backed and steeped in a very comprehensive research assessment of food retail and other models and approaches around the country. So all of those things we think benefit this current proposal in iteration of what’s possible.

Q. Is there one big thing standing in the way of bringing this plan to fruition, or is it a bunch of small things?

BW: I don’t know if it’s one thing. We think that there are a number of partners. Certainly the county is committed to investing in a solution, and our other partners that are listed throughout the report are ready to go. We think the report provides a path toward, how it can happen. And with that collective support, the working group really believes this is ready to go, and we could, in fact, be seeing some success within a year or two on the corridor. 

Q. Success in terms of the build-out and getting the store ready?

BW: Yes, there’s some work that continues to be done in establishing the business, but most of this is a matter of the collective will of the community. We appreciate the county really taking the lead and being an impetus for possibilities here, so we think this is a matter of pulling it all together. 

Q. How confident are you that this co-op grocery store as proposed in the plan will happen?

BW: I’m very confident. The working group and all of us, we are very positive and excited about the prospects. We think we’re perhaps closer than the community has been in a longtime. 

This article was published as part of our West End Journalism Project, which is funded by a grant by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

Sarafina Wright
Sarafina covers Historic West End under a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. She earned a journalism degree from Howard University. Email news tips to sarafinawright@qcitymetro.com or connect with her on Twitter and Instagram @sarafinasaid.

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