By Darlene C. Carey
Erin Caudell, co-owner of The Local Grocer on Martin Luther King Boulevard and a longtime farmer and food activist, chafes when she hears the term “food desert” to describe Flint’s food availability challenges.
“A desert is a diverse, thriving ecosystem,” Caudell says. “Lack of food in a community is not.”
“Food apartheid” is a more descriptive term for what has happened in the city, she says. She defines it as “the systemic production and distribution of nutrient-poor, disease-causing foods to economically-vulnerable areas that disproportionately harms communities of color.
“Food apartheid is rooted in injustices such as colonialism, slavery, land loss, and environmental racism,” she asserts. The term Apartheid was used in South Africa during a time when segregation was at a high and British colonials disenfranchised the local community.
The Local Grocer is an independently-owned business, with a staff of 15. Caudell and her partner and co-owner Franklin Pleasant are Flint residents who saw the demand for more local farmers and the need for a grocery store in their community.
The Local Grocer opened its storefront in December, 2015, having already been three years prior a vendor at the Flint Farmer’s Market. Caudell and Pleasant also are farmers, owners of the nine-acre Flint Ingredient Company, which supplies fresh produce for their store and Farmers’ Market stall.
Over the years, Caudell and Pleasant have partnered with non-profit organizations, such as Edible Flint and Flint Fresh Mobile Market, to advocate, educate, and improve access to healthy food.
According to DataUSA, 40 percent of Flint residents live below the poverty line and have a median household income of less than $25,000. To an already stressed community, the Flint Water Crisis has had seismic implications — the toxic health effects of lead and recent drawbacks of state bottled water deliveries creating additional urgency to Caudell’s efforts.
“Good nutrition is our best defense for keeping lead out of our blood stream (once it has settled in our bones),” she says. “We focus on that aspect of a healthy community. There are wonderful groups in our community doing some of the other work. We have partnered with them for special events and programs.”
Along with the non-profit organizations, Caudell has aligned her own food production with several other local farms and what Caudell highlighted on blog posts at thelocalgrocer.com, as “CSA program (Community Supported Agriculture),” The CSAs provide produce from Caudell and Pleasant’s farm, Flint Ingredient Company, and threeadditional Michigan farms: Ten Hens Farm, Thread Creek Farm, and Simple Gifts Farm.
Running a farm is hard work. Caudell understood early on that a small farm would not be able to sustain the supply of produce needed in the store’s operation, so she and Pleasant grew their farmer partnerships to more than 12 the last few years. Those partnerships provide customers with a large variety of locally-grown organic vegetables produced by people with shared values.
“As residents we wanted to have a positive impact on the economic development of our community. By selling products from other local farms and food businesses we are helping to circulate our communities’ dollars closer to home,” Caudell says.
The Local Grocer aims to gradually reshape food availability and delivery by growing a diverse customer base from surrounding neighborhoods, supporting other local businesses, and attracting people who drive from outside the city to support businesses in Flint.
Caudell suggests customers come from outside the neighborhood because of the Local Grocer’s focus on locally made and produced items.” She also cites “our produce offerings, as well as our great ‘grab and go’ snacks and meals, feature locally grown meat dishes, vegan and vegetarian options as well as gluten free” and that could be part of the draw.
Caudell hopes to dispel the perception that organic food is more expensive and less sustainable than mass-produced food from big corporate outlets.
“We participate in many programs that help support families in need, including Double Up Food Bucks, Hoophouses for Health, Senior Fresh, and Project Fresh,” she says.
“The Local Grocer is approaching food access from a perspective that farmers and eaters are the most vulnerable groups in the food chain,” she says, “and we are attempting to balance farmers’ ability to make a living with residents’ ability to access healthy, safely grown produce.”
She continues, “There is still a lot of work to do in order to ‘fix’ food access in our community, I’m glad we are part of improving it. Food systems are complex systems and take changes throughout the system in order to improve it.”
The spacious layout and design of the store, with its whimsical checked floor, seems intentionally to suggest an open, welcoming environment.
“We do offer space for community events and meetings,” she says. “We partner with Flint Handmade to host monthly art walks and craft academy classes. We often host tastings for local brands and businesses. We’ve hosted everything from meetings to book clubs to birthday parties.”
“Thinking of our store as a community space, hosting events, being open to suggestions for new products has been a big part of our approach to business.,” she adds. “We’ve been extremely fortunate to have such wonderful customers and really love being a part of the neighborhood.”
EVM Staff Writer Darlene Carey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Banner photo by Darlene Carey.