ALDERSON — The drought is over for this food desert in eastern West Virginia.
After months of planning, building and fundraising, a nonprofit group in Alderson opened the town’s new grocery store last Wednesday.
A steady stream of customers funneled in and out of the Green Grocer as a reporter paid a visit on the store’s second day of operation.
“There has not been a time without anyone in the store,” said Ann Knott, one of two part-time employees at the store. “We’ve had a lot of excitement building for this.”
Speaking as she checked out customers, Knott said the shelves were thinned out on the store’s first day and the store sold out of bananas and 30 pounds of locally-sourced ramps.
“They’re just tickled to death to not have to leave town to shop anymore,” she said of those in Alderson.
An experiment in a nonprofit grocery store, the Green Grocer was born out of a grassroots effort to not let the food desert phenomenon plaguing parts of rural America be repeated in Alderson.
Alderson’s only market, Gadd’s IGA, closed last fall, leaving the town of 1,200 without anywhere to buy fresh meat and produce and forcing residents to drive to Lewisburg or Hinton just to get to a real grocery store.
After the IGA shut down, the nonprofit Alderson Community Food Hub — a group dedicated to fresh, local food — decided to expand its Green Grocer co-op into a full-fledged grocery store.
The Green Grocer operated in a shared space with Wolf Creek Galleries, but the gallery’s move to the Renaissance Building across town earlier this year freed up room for the store’s expansion.
The Food Hub launched a crowdfunding campaign in January with a goal of raising $30,400.
That amount represented what it would take to get the store up and running and be able to launch all four phases of the project — expand fresh food handling capacity; add more produce, meat and cheese; outfit a certified kitchen; and launch a cafe and deli section.
Not only did the Food Hub hit its goal — a feat in the crowdfunding world — donors gave even more money, leaving the final total at $31,150.
“I was surprised,” said Kathleen DeRouen, a Food Hub board member who was shopping at the Green Grocer with her son last Thursday. “It’s not an easy thing to ask people for money. I was so impressed about how many people responded.”
The Food Hub and its AmeriCorps VISTA worker have been securing products for the store with preference to locally-sourced foods, if possible.
In these initial weeks, the Food Hub will be analyzing what customers need and want and will tailor products to that demand.
Last week, it had everything from produce to baby food to spaghetti sauce to toiletries to meat.
A lot of pre-packaged items are fairly familiar — Hunt’s ketchup and Campbell’s soup, for example — but most of the name-brand items have an organic counterpart for sale, like Amy’s Organic Soups, Tom’s of Maine deodorant and Bluestone Mountain Soap made near Hinton.
In its emphasis on local sourcing, the Food Hub is working with farmers in the Alderson area to develop a schedule of what produce will be available through the year.
“As long as we can get them locally, we will,” Knott said.
Among the sources of meats are Swift Level Farms in Lewisburg and Gunnoe’s Sausage.
A number of dry beans and other legumes are from Frankferd Farms in Saxonburg, Pa., and a number of cheeses are from Mercer, Pa.
Overall, prices are generally a bit higher than what one would find at a large chain store like Kroger, but the convenience and distance of the Green Grocer over a large store can zero out the cost difference.
“It’s super nice to have to not have to drive all the way to Lewisburg,” said Annie Stroud, a Food Hub member who was shopping on Thursday.
A local couple, husband Dan Clay and wife Diana Shay, were eating lunch prepared at the grocery’s small cafe counter as they sat at tables lining the store’s front windows overlooking the Greenbrier River.
Clay and Shay live a few miles outside town on a farm, and Shay said the presence of a local market is a much better option than driving the 15 miles to another store.
“You have to plan further ahead for your meals,” Shay said. “You’re always afraid you’re going to forget something.”
Clay said the Green Grocer sits in the space once occupied by an old Ford garage and the parking lot on the side of the store was once the site of a small grocery that closed decades ago.
“This is a good thing for our community to have good, local, healthy food,” said Clay, a lifelong resident of the area.
Nearly all of the store’s construction and operations have been volunteer-driven. The only paid employees are Knott and another part-timer, plus the AmeriCorps worker.
“The board has been super active,” Knott said. “It’s just been a labor of love for a lot of people.”
Because of the generosity of donors and volunteers, the grocery has everything the Food Hub wanted starting out.
DeRouen said the Green Grocer hopes to get a few more pieces of equipment, like a walk-in cooler and another display cooler, and wants to eventually sell West Virginia-made beer, wine and liquor.
The Food Hub intends to keep the store as a nonprofit, and proceeds from the store will fund the Food Hub’s other preexisting ventures, like farmers markets and community gardens.
For now, it will work on its operations and a formal grand opening is planned for April 24.
The Green Grocer is open Tuesdays through Sundays from 10:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. It’s located along W.Va. 12 just north of downtown Alderson.