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"It empowers when you have ownership of something and you have a say. From the root to the fruit, you can be a part of the whole process."

A food co-op is in the works for Southeast Raleigh 

Walk down New Bern Avenue and you'll find what many Southeast Raleigh residents call "heart attack alley"—KFC, Cook-Out, Church's Chicken and Bojangles' all lined up, ready to deliver fast, cheap meals with a side of cardiovascular disease.

"All that fried food and bad food for you is right there with no alternatives," says Erin Byrd, who has lived in Southeast Raleigh for more than 10 years. Byrd is among several community leaders and residents who want to improve access to healthy food in the area. If all goes according to plan, Southeast Raleigh will see its first food cooperative in two to three years.

The next steps for the Fertile Ground Food Cooperative are to develop a business plan and conduct a feasibility study to ensure the area can sustain it, Byrd says. With co-ops in Carrboro, Chapel Hill and Durham, Byrd says it's about time Raleigh had one too.

"We feel like Southeast Raleigh is the place to begin," she says. "For us, it is a really good opportunity to come together as a community (with) this idea of spurring economic development through an alternative, which has shared ownership, shared investment and shared benefits for a community."

The Food Access Research Atlas, compiled by the Economic Research Service of the USDA, confirms what Byrd and other residents have long known: Southeast Raleigh is a food desert. As the USDA defines it, a food desert is an area with limited access to grocery stores and other sources of affordable and healthy foods, which makes it difficult for people to eat a quality diet. The atlas combines USDA data and mapping technology to determine accessibility to healthy food sources by measuring factors such as income levels, distance to the nearest supermarket and access to a car.

Plug New Bern Avenue into the map and you'll see the area and surrounding Southeast Raleigh neighborhoods are classified as low-income households with limited vehicle access. Urban areas are more than a half-mile from the nearest supermarket and rural areas are more than 10 miles away. This year two Kroger grocery stores closed in Southeast Raleigh, leaving residents with limited, often unhealthy options at gas stations and convenience stores.

"There are lots of people here with no cars, no ability to go places. They walk to their local store and they walk home. When that store is gone, what are they going to do?" asks Rita Anita Linger, president of Southeast Raleigh Assembly (SERA), a nonprofit that works to improve the quality of life for residents. "People are beginning to realize that we have to rely on ourselves in this community in order to ensure sustainability and that when a store picks up and leaves, it's not going to leave us stranded."

Ajuba Joy has called Southeast Raleigh her home for more than 20 years and says the area needs other programs, including community gardens and a co-op. "It empowers when you have ownership of something and you have a say. From the root to the fruit, you can be a part of the whole process. That's how the co-op can be wonderful for this community," Joy says.

She heads up SERA's community garden, ROOT 1, or Recognizing Our Own Talent 1. The garden, now located on Bailey Drive, is run by residents of all ages, and the harvest goes to community members, starting with senior citizens.

Joy was among a group of about 45 Southeast Raleigh residents who met in June to discuss co-op ideas. After completing the incorporation process, they can recruit members. The co-op is working with Carolina Common Enterprise, a nonprofit that helps fledgling co-ops and other economic community development in North Carolina.

With lots of new faces at the June meeting, Byrd says the community has shown significant interest in a co-op. From finding a location to developing a membership structure, there is much to be done, Byrd says.

"But what I found exciting was that even after learning all of that, people were still on fire," she says.

This article appeared in print with the headline "An oasis in the food desert."

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