An oasis sits just beyond the horizon of the food desert that is southeast Raleigh. Erin Byrd is working to make sure that it isn't just a mirage.
Faced with a staggering inadequacy of healthy, affordable food in the area, Byrd and a small group of southeast Raleigh residents created the Fertile Ground Food Cooperative, a grocery store that she hopes will reshape the community.
"We want a place where people can have access to healthy food, but that's only a part of it," Byrd said. "We want to create a place where people can come and feel welcomed, feel loved."
About three years ago, Byrd and a few friends met over dinner to discuss the possibility of opening a coffeehouse cooperative in the area. A long-time community organizer, Byrd was drawn to the democratic nature and community-strengthening capacity of co-ops.
"It's not one person who gets to own a co-op," Byrd said. "It's a shared resource for the community where people can go to work without throwing their labor away."
She wanted to introduce the unorthodox business model to southeast Raleigh, and thought a coffeehouse would present a relatively easy way to do so. She never got a chance to find out.
Less than a year after Byrd hatched her coffee-shop co-op idea, Kroger announced that it was closing two of its southeast Raleigh stores, ravaging the area's already barren grocery-store market. Byrd and her friends decided to rethink their co-op concept.
"I thought that what I was doing wasn't helping people with their everyday lives," Byrd said. "I was fighting to make a change, but my neighbors were still hungry."
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has declared the southeast Raleigh a food desert, meaning that at least 20 percent of the area's residents are impoverished, and at least 33 percent of the area's population lives more than one mile from a grocery store.
"The bottom line is that to improve the quality of life for people here, we need healthy food," said City Councilmember Eugene Weeks. "I have no doubt that Erin can make that happen."
Fertile Ground is still in the early stages of development, however, and is potentially years away from bagging any groceries. Byrd estimates that the co-op will need to raise $2 million to $3 million before it can open.
The co-op started selling memberships in July as a part of its fundraising campaign. Each membership costs $100, which includes a share in the cooperative. So far, Fertile Ground has sold 105 memberships, which is only about a tenth of what it needs to sell to open, Byrd said.
Byrd and her team have yet to choose a location for the store, but they are expect it to be about 12,000 square feet.
Though it may be a while before Fertile Ground comes to fruition, it is sure to face competition from conservative businessman and political operative Art Pope. His company Variety Wholesalers Inc., will run a grocery store out of what used to be the Kroger on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, according to Weeks.
"Grocery stores come and go," Byrd said. "We need something that is for us and by us—something that will benefit our community. It's important that we have businesses that make money and invest it back into the community."
Weeks, who worked with Variety Wholesalers Inc. to fill the empty Kroger, said that he doesn't think that any amount of competition will threaten Fertile Ground.
"Erin is not taking no for an answer," Weeks said. "She really believes in what she's doing, and she's not going to let anything stop her."