GLT is reporting this week on why west Bloomington is a food desert and how different community organizations are working to fill the gap. This is part two in the series.
Green Top Grocery is lowering prices on produce and other staples and trying a variety of other strategies to reach more lower-income customers from Bloomington's west side.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has identified west Bloomington as a food desert: a place where residents don’t have easy access to fresh, healthy food. Food deserts are usually found in minority and low-income neighborhoods.
When Green Top opened a year ago, its supporters said it hoped the store's proximity to the west side would fill a need. West side activists have been seeking a full-service supermarket for the area for years.
Green Top has struggled somewhat to fill that role. It specializes in providing organic produce, locally-baked breads, antibiotic-free meats and cage-free eggs, which are typically more expensive than ordinary supermarket brands. Some residents on the west side say they are priced out of Green Top's offerings.
The store is trying to change that.
“We have recently started lowering the prices on over 400 items in the store,” Green Top's marketing director Rainie Themer said on GLT’s Sound Ideas.
Additionally Themer said the store has begun a Green Top Basics pricing campaign, marked by purple signs throughout the store.
“Those are basic items you see in our store that we sell at cost or below cost. Milk, eggs, items that everybody needs,” Themer said.
There are also weekly discounts on fresh produce, Themer said, marked by green sale signs.
One recent week, organic pears at Green Top were selling for just slightly more than non-organic pears at the local Kroger supermarkets. The avocados on sale at Green Top were less expensive than Kroger's.
Green Top is supported in part by $200 ownerships its customers can buy, though you don’t have to be an owner to shop there.
Themer said Green Top doesn’t keep track of how many of its current 1,700 owners are minorities or how many come from the nearby west-side neighborhood.
“We do see probably less minority customers, but we are trying to reach out to the west side. We are starting some programming that will be marketing heavily toward the west side soon," Themer said.
As part of that effort, the store has established a fund to help lower income customers become Green Top owners for less than the usual $200 ownership fee.
“Anyone who wants to become an owner can become one for as little as $5,” Themer said. A special Green Top Accessibility Fund pays the rest.
Like Kroger and other area supermarkets, Themer said Green Top donates a substantial amount of food each month to organizations that give food to struggling families.
“In grocery stores, the expiration dates hit and we can’t sell something anymore. That doesn’t mean it’s not a good product and can’t be eaten,” Themer said.
She said Beacon of Hope is one of the volunteer organizations that regularly collects food from Green Top.
“They come and pick up expired or not-so-perfect items and give them to churches, day cares and individual families in the community,” Themer said.
“Anything we can’t give to them, we donate to Home Sweet Home Ministries,” which helps the homeless, “and so that is also another way we get food out to the community,” she added.
Customers can also round up the total of their purchase and donate the difference to charity.
“If the total is $18.75, we’ll ask if you want to round it up 25 cents for whoever our Round Up recipient is that month," she added.
Green Top raised $1,200 for the Midwest Food Bank through its Round Up program last November, she said.
The store also has a “teaching kitchen,” Themer said, which offers two to three classes a quarter, like one recent class on slicing and dicing. Some require a registration fee, but others are free.
“The classes are really popular. Almost every class sells out. We recently offered a kids class and that sold out in two hours,” she said.
Themer said most of the people who currently take Green Top's classes come from more “affluent, white” communities. She said the store is seeking to change that as well.
“It is still a work in progress. We are trying to get the word out to other communities and we really want to embrace those communities," Themer said.
Another effort is the free wellness classes offered each first Wednesday of the month, she said. The store offers a 10 percent discount on any of its wellness products in conjunction with the classes.
Additionally, Green Top recently received a $20,000 grant from Link Up Illinois, which provides food benefits to lower income families. The grant allows Green Top to match every Link dollar spent on fresh produce, up to $25, with a coupon of equal value to purchase additional produce either at the store or the Bloomington-Normal Farmers Market.
Customers “can spend any amount,” Themer said. “It can be as little as a dollar, but if they spend $25, we will give them $25 in coupons.”
Themer said Green Top is also applying to qualify for the federal Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program. That program provides vouchers for pregnant women and for children under the age of 5 toward the purchase of certain approved food items.
“We brought in over 100 items,” Themer said, including certain milk and baby food brands for which customers could potentially use their WIC benefits.
Themer said Green Top needs to create a balance between offering items that would qualify for WIC while keeping true to the store's mission to provide organic, locally-produced foods.
She said Green Top is working with social service agencies and grassroots community organizations to get the word about the store’s efforts to reach a broader customer base in the community.
You can also listen to GLT's full story:
Coming Wednesday: More of GLT's conversation with Deborah Halperin from the West Bloomington Revitalization Project.
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