Tainted meat, expired produce and blight; that’s how J’Tanya Adams describes some of the grocery stores she’s seen in the part of west Charlotte she calls home. Adams, founder of Historic West End Partners (HWEP) neighborhood organization, is fighting to create food security in the Historic West End, which has struggled with food desertification for as long as she can remember.
Established in 2010, HWEP consists of business owners, community members and faith leaders seeking to preserve and revitalize the historically Black corridor.
J’Tanya Adams, who serves as executive director at HWEP, has long been an advocate in the fight against gentrification and blight in west Charlotte. For the past few years, she has brought that fight to the grocery store.
HWEP hopes to soon bring a cooperative grocery store to West End based on a Weaver Street Market model that’s been implemented elsewhere in the state.
Adams hopes to address food insecurity in west Charlotte through community-owned means, so I recently talked to her and others familiar with the co-op model about what that process will look like and how it will help residents of the West End.
Food insecurity has been an issue in the West End for decades. As a child growing up in the Steele Creek area, Adams would visit her aunts in the West End and remembers all the stores that used to stand on the corridor. When she moved there as an adult in 2007, however, she saw that the stores had begun to disappear.
“The stores were [in the West End] before [white] flight. The stores went away after [white] flight, especially as the areas became more occupied by Black people … The stores follow the flight. The stores follow the gentrification,” she said.
Adams and other community advocates began inviting various grocery stores to set up shop within the corridor.
“We tried to do it the conventional way. So that was talking with commercial chains, trying to get them to come there, and being told, ‘You don’t meet the demographics,’” she said. “You just never meet the demographics. Even today, with houses in the neighborhood selling for $1 million, we still don’t meet the demographics.”
As she continued to research supermarkets and food deserts, Adams studied cooperative grocery stores, which use a community-minded model for buying and selling food.
At these co-ops, employees and customers alike can buy shares of the company and, through those shares, democratically own and run the company. Often, they help take care of the store, help select what goes on its shelves, and help the store make charitable impacts on its community.
Adams thought the community-centered approach was a welcome change from the years of demands about demographics, so she elected to pursue it. She traveled around the country to see how various co-op grocery stores worked in their communities.
Throughout the course of this research, Adams realized that the solution had been sitting in her backyard all along: Weaver Street Market, a co-op based in the Triangle area. Founded in Carrboro in 1988, the grocery store has expanded to several other North Carolina cities while retaining its cooperative model.
“We are 100% intent to move forward with the Weaver Street model. It’s indisputably the best on the East Coast, and possibly the West,” Adams said.
Weaver Street’s roots
To those familiar with Weaver Street Market in the Triangle, it may seem like an odd choice for the West End. The grocery co-op tends to set up shop in and around more affluent neighborhoods in the area, including Southern Village in Chapel Hill and the Depot Historic District in Raleigh. And while much of the produce inventory hovers around market price, some inventory can get pretty expensive.
So what could implementing a model like this mean for the West End? According to Kristen Jeffers, North Carolina native and founder of The Black Urbanist, the answer is rooted in the history of food and white flight.
Supermarkets emerged at the turn of the century as a centralized, modern method of buying and selling food. Part of the reason demand rose for large grocery stores over smaller, independent food sellers was to support a growing suburban population – most of which were middle-class to upper-middle-class white people.
“These supermarkets, when they were originally conceived, were to sell this idea [of modernity] to a certain demographic, which at the time tended to be suburbanizing white Americans,” Jeffers said.
The co-op grocery store model came about partly as a resistance to that trend. Farmers, food sellers and customers alike grew dissatisfied with the control that big supermarkets exercised over their livelihoods and choices. Throughout the latter half of the 20th century, several co-op grocery stores sprouted up throughout North Carolina, including Greensboro’s Deep Roots in 1976 and Asheville’s French Broad Food in 1975.
“As members, they maintained the building where their groceries were, they negotiated with wholesalers so that they could provide more funds for the community. In many of the original co-ops, people that shopped there also worked there,” Jeffers said. “Of course, this is different now.”
Weaver Street’s co-op membership, which comes with a one-time payment of $75, still ensures the right to vote in board elections and run for board seats. But aside from some free swag and a owners-only weekly deal (at the time of writing, it’s 20% off soup!), the current benefits are a far cry from how it once was.
“Now there has become a sort of industrial complex around some of these entities because now they have purchasing power,” Jeffers explained. “They have multiple locations. The kind of folks who are able to sustain this still have a degree of privilege and wealth.”
But Jeffers doesn’t think that necessarily discounts Historic West End Parnters’ efforts.
“What’s great is that West End Partners is attempting to have community conversations about what this means. What I do hope West End Partners does is put a class and ability lens on this and see it’s not enough to just bring in this entity that’s known for co-ops of mostly white members in mostly white neighborhoods.”
In recent years, Weaver Street has tried to shed its affluent image in favor of something more inclusive.
In 2020, four Weaver Street employees formed the E.Q.U.I.T.Y. Alliance, a group attempting to address racism and diversity in the co-op’s wholesalers, products and employees. One project, the Game Changers program, is a move to bring in more products made by non-white sellers, which in 2020 made up less than 4% of the co-op’s total sales.
Weaver Street also brought in a diversity, equity and inclusion consultant in July 2020 and strengthened partnerships with Black-led farming organizations like the Black Farmers Market and First Fruits Farm.
Adjusting a historically white model to a historically Black neighborhood is a challenge. Jeffers believes that with careful consideration of the community’s needs, HWEP can meet it.
“I would challenge [Weaver Street Market], especially knowing that they want to partner with a historically Black community that is hoping to practice economic equity for Black people, that they allow this Black community to have a little bit more say in everything – from what people get paid to what they put on the shelves.”
It’s important to note that there is not yet any formal agreement between the official Weaver Street Market and Historic West End Partners, and the latter may simply aim to borrow ideas from the former.
Historic West End looks for partners
Giving the West End a say is exactly what Gene Flavors is trying to do. Flavors, who is the director of this project, moved to west Charlotte five years ago to live in the neighborhood where his wife grew up.
“We got involved in the community … but there were some things that we felt like the community needed,” he said. “The number one thing anyone will say to you is, ‘Man, we don’t have a grocery store.’”
Adams and Flavors are trying to gauge how to make the Weaver Street model work for the west side. Their work starts with community conversations — Zoom meetings, group sessions, and so on — to get feedback and answer questions about this project’s potential.
Currently, Historic West End Partners is planning a series of outreach efforts to see what community members would like out of this process. The research will not only impact where the store will be located but what the prices and inventory might look like.
Affordability is a crucial part of the project. Weaver Street accepts SNAP and EBT, and receipients are eligible for free memberships, but there still remain major barriers to accessibility.
Flavors points out that transportation may play a role in that.
“Affordability is important, but so is the ability to get [to the co-op.] The transportation, the trolley, the buses, walkability — we want all that to improve so people can get there,” he said. “If it’s something they can’t get to, then providing it doesn’t mean a whole lot.”
I asked Adams about how she planned to ensure a grocery store like this would remain affordable.
“I have to say: When we talk about affordability, we talk about people that have income challenges. Even in that situation we all treat ourselves at one time or another with something, and I assure you that electronics and grooming experiences cost more than $75,” she said.
“So again, we’re back to life choices. You can save money and buy processed food at Walmart and make sure that you have additional money for electronics or clothing or grooming products, or you can decide that you wanna eat healthy and live longer. We all are making decisions. I am going to hold us all accountable for the choices we all make.”
As HWEP sees it, Weaver Street Market is the community’s best option, one that organizers believe has the potential to reshape and restabilize the community. But in order for that to happen, it must serve the community as a whole.
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