ALDERSON — When Alderson’s only grocery store closed three months ago, the small town’s residents could have shrugged their shoulders, thrown up their hands and resigned themselves to the fact that their nearest grocery store would now be a 30-mile round-trip.
But they didn’t.
Instead, as word spread that Gadd’s IGA would be closing, members of the local nonprofit Alderson Community Food Hub fast tracked a strategic plan — in the works for more than a year — to open a not-for-profit grocery store.
“You have to immediately adjust,” said Kevin Johnson, president of the Food Hub.
“If nobody has access to food of any kind, everyone loses here.”
Members of the town quickly joined in the effort, which is now in full swing.
Earlier this month, volunteers and Food Hub board members gathered at the former Wolf Creek Gallery for a painting party that will help turn the onetime gift shop into a grocery store.
Annie Stroud smiled as she carefully placed painter’s tape over the walls’ trim.
“I think what’s really exciting about this one is that the community and the group here is working on building a community-based grocery store that has a social mission as well. … We’ve been trying to solve issues of food here, and in doing that we’re creating a model that can be transferred.”
During the daylong painting party, a bell hanging from the storefront’s door rang often as locals passed in and out to check on the site’s progress and offer their help.
Chris Chaflett, owner of Groundworks Nursery in Beckley, stopped in on his way to Lewisburg.
He greeted his friend Johnson.
“Hi, Kev. Just checking it out here.”
Johnson encouraged, “Please come back. We’re painting today. We’re painting all of these walls.”
“Oh really. I like to paint,” Chaflett answered.
And that’s how it was done.
Similar interactions between neighbor and neighbor, friend and friend, take place on any given weekend in the storefront as light shines in from large front windows in a place that will soon provide residents with vital fresh food.
What’s happening in Alderson is a bold attempt to combat the kind of challenge an increasing number of urban neighborhoods and rural towns are facing — the threat of becoming what the U.S. Department of Agriculture terms a “food desert.”
A rural area is considered to be a food desert if the nearest supermarket is located more than 10 miles away. An estimated 23.5 million Americans who live in food deserts are more likely to turn to fast-food restaurants and cheap processed foods commonly found in convenience stores.
It becomes a vicious cycle. USDA researchers attribute higher levels of obesity and other diet-related diseases to food deserts. Because many rural towns lack public transportation, populations most affected by food deserts are those lacking readily available transportation: low-income individuals and families and the elderly.
The Mountain Transit Authority operates in the town of Alderson on weekdays, but Johnson said the bus route is often inconvenient because it picks people up in the center of Alderson and transports them to the center of Lewisburg.
Without the IGA, getting to the nearest grocery store isn’t easy, particularly for the 20 percent of Alderson’s population that is 65 years of age or older.
“People have to adjust their patterns. People have to bum rides,” Johnson said. “The impact over a long period of time is pretty tremendous. It affects people’s concept of the future because they feel like, ‘Well, wait a minute. Is this not a place that I can continue to live? Or, is this not a place that has opportunities?’”
To avoid becoming another statistic, the Food Hub launched a crowdfunding campaign in January to raise money to open a new grocery store, Alderson Green Grocer, by the end of March.
Since the online fundraiser started, on Jan. 15, the organization has raised over $11,000 through www.indiegogo.com/projects/help-us-start-a-grocery-store. They hope to raise $30,400 by March 16.
When painting and other renovations are complete, the new store will be located along W.Va. Route 12 in the center of Alderson, which sits along the Greenbrier River in both Greenbrier and Monroe counties.
“While we want to sell as much organic and local as we can, we really need to provide affordable options and sometimes that rules out organic. We want to be a consistent provider of fresh food,” said Anna Osborne, Food Hub board member.
Just like a for-profit business, the Food Hub developed a business plan designed to grow the business “as a full-service grocery store, which will have some local food, but also non-local and conventional food: dry goods, frozen foods, canned goods, all the beverages — everything,” Johnson said.
Area residents Billy and Dawn Painter have partnered with the Green Grocer to operate a deli inside the store.
Currently, the husband-wife team sells barbecued meat at a variety of festivals and catering events. Painter said he plans to use his 30-plus years of barbecuing experience to offer customers a variety of meats in the deli, in addition to a number of salads and more.
“Everything is cooked from scratch, just like grandma and grandpa used to do it,” Painter said.
The Food Hub has completed a financial analysis to ensure that the Green Grocer will be economically viable, basing its business plan not just on the town residents but on the more than 5,000 people who live in the area.
“As a social enterprise, we’re not in it to make a profit, but we’re in it to keep it going and expand and then meet the needs of the community,” said Fritz Boettner, a Food Hub board member who has been with the organization since it formed in 2011.
He added, “Like starting a new business, it’s a little spooky. But the amount of support that we get from the town and just people coming out, I have no doubt that it will succeed. … We want you to be able to come into the store and shop and get what you need for a meal.”
The Food Hub has actually been doing this kind of work for several years in Alderson. In 2011, the nonprofit formed to start a farmers market. After experiencing tremendous success and continuous growth, the organization expanded its efforts to build a community garden in 2012, then a gardening program at Alderson Elementary School and a community orchard program.
More recently, the Food Hub entered into an agreement with Pennsylvania-based Frankferd Farms Food to start a community food co-op offering members organic bulk food. It opened a physical location in a corner of the building that will soon become Alderson Green Grocer to allow the same selection of goods to nonmembers. The site also became certified to sell locally grown produce and meat.
The Food Hub is partnering with Mountain Association for Community Economic Development for business support and guidance.
AmeriCorps volunteer Octavia Murra will assist in gaining additional volunteer support and establishing relationships with local producers. Ann Knott has been hired to manage the grocery store. As a current employee of the Kroger grocery store in Hinton, Knott said she is excited to contribute the insight she’s gained from her supermarket experience.
“I’m proud to be involved in this endeavor,” she said.
Thanks to Alderson’s farmers market, the Food Hub is one step ahead in forming relationships with local producers.
“We are trying to work with the farmers now,” Boettner said. “For eight months out of the year, I see us having lettuce that is probably only local.”
Boettner’s wife, Stacey Lambert, said she envisions the Green Grocer becoming a place for the community to gather.
“Alderson really needs a place for people to come together, and this is sort of a step in that direction.”
Osborne, a kindergarten teacher at Alderson Elementary School, said the group’s efforts not only sets an example for the town’s adults, but one for its children.
“We have been over the past few years developing a nutrition program [at the school]. So it doesn’t hold a lot of weight if we’re teaching kids how important it is to eat fresh vegetables and fruit but you can’t access it. … It feels like in order to carry out what we are teaching the kids, you have to do this. It’s like a moral imperative.”
To learn more about the Alderson Community Food Hub, visit aldersonfoodhub.org. To donate to its cause, visit www.indiegogo.com/projects/help-us-start-a-grocery-store.
Reach Anna Patrick at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-4881.