The creation of a grocery co-op has long been a topic of conversation among city leadership, and they’re taking steps to keep the process moving forward.
At a city council meeting Thursday, Erica Hardison, a founding member of the startup One Community Grocery Co-op, made a presentation about why food co-ops are so important and shared her vision for her co-op, which would be located in South St. Pete.
“Food is a major part of health,” said Hardison, who also serves on the city’s newly formed Food Policy Council. “When we talk about identifying health problems and we see people who have no access to healthy food, we should begin there.”
More than 134,000 Pinellas County residents are food insecure, according to data from Feeding Tampa Bay. Food deserts, which are marked by low income and a lack of access to healthy and affordable food, exacerbate issues related to food insecurity. There are several food deserts across the county, including a new one in north St. Pete.
“Food insecurity is a huge problem and it’s not just in South St. Pete anymore,” Hardison said. “This is an opportunity for the city to help all our citizens before it spreads even further.”
The One Community Grocery Co-op began forming in 2017 and operates on a membership model. People who join become, in essence, owners of the co-op and can vote on the general direction of the store, and also share in profits that aren’t being reinvested once it becomes financially stable. The co-op is still seeking members and aims to reach 300 in order to move forward toward opening its doors.
Hardison envisions the co-op existing alongside other social services such as health centers and business development offices. The co-op would also offer health education classes, and employees would enjoy benefits such as health insurance. The possibilities, she said, are limitless.
“What we’re asking is to invest in the community and food security that will bring about economic change and health change,” Hardison told council members. “We want to help build a vibrant city that is healthy, strong and ready to move forward.”
Council chair Ed Montanari said the city will begin exploring the process of how it can provide financial support. There was also discussion about the St. Pete Greenhouse getting involved to provide classes and consulting related to building a co-op.
Council member Gina Driscoll said she’s advocated for funding for grocery co-ops for the past three budget cycles and doesn’t plan to stop until it happens.
“I’m going to keep trying, but I hope this conversation today will move us closer to justifying having a specific allocation toget grocery co-ops rolling a little faster,” she said. “It’s very clear we need to have more resources to help make these things happen.”