The last time Indian Head had its own grocery store was in the last millennium. Now, a group of residents have banded together to take bringing fresh food back to the county’s western side into their own hands.
Steering committee member Anjela Barnes said she’d been “ruminating” for several years on the idea for what has now become the fledgling stages of the Indian Head Food Co-Op. On a family vacation to Harrisonburg, Va., Barnes said she visited such a store and thought that it was just what the town needed. She reached out to Mayor Brandon Paulin in January, she said, and began working with the other members of the steering committee to get the ball rolling.
On Sept. 29 at the Indian Head Center for the Arts’ Black Box Theater, nearly 60 people showed up to learn more about co-op grocery stores and the unique opportunity such a business could present for the town. The presentation offered residents the chance to learn the basics of what a co-op is and how it could be beneficial for them and the town, and they were also afforded the chance to pose questions to the committee.
While not every member of the steering committee is a native of the town or even of the area, they all currently live nearby and all said they shared the common goal of wanting to see the community and its residents flourish. All agreed it was important to work together to support an area of the county that often seems to be at a disadvantage.
“We’re a community down here where I think we need to thrive, I think we want to thrive, and I think the best way to do that starts with food,” committee member Ashley Sanna-Barbee said in introducing herself to the crowd. “We don’t have that, and we need it and we all know that. We’re miserable out here ... and that’s why I’m here.”
Another committee member, Trey Thomas, said the lack of fresh food options is distressing to him.
“I appreciate Indian Head so much, and it saddens me there’s no real source for food here,” he said. “The closest one, Safeway, closed down what, a few months ago? ... It’d be nice to see something closer to home.”
Barnes explained that a co-op, although one can hold a membership, is not the same as belonging to a big box store like Costco. Member-owners of the co-op pay to join — they’re considering a $200 lifetime fee for the potential Indian Head store, for example, and hope to enlist 300 members — and have much more stake in the store than one would at a corporate retailer. An informational video played at the meeting said that co-ops can offer all the same options one would find at a traditional grocery, but often feature a much larger assortment of locally-sourced products and can benefit the local economy more directly. One also doesn’t have to be a member to shop at the co-op, Barnes said.
Because they aren’t beholden to shareholders, Barnes said, a co-op can often be a better choice when it comes to providing items consumers want. That community connection is especially important for a customer-driven and customer-owned model like theirs, she said, and over the next year she said that she and the committee are seeking to enlist more members to help guide the process.
“The last time we had a full-service market was 20 years ago,” Barnes said. “It was January 1999 when the Super Fresh closed down. This area is considered a food desert.”
Barnes said she feels the co-op model would actually better serve the community than the traditional grocery store model. So far, she said, the committee has been working on organizing its structure best and doing active research, connecting with and visiting existing co-op stores in the region and neighboring ones. They’ve been exploring core values, from sustainability and social welfare to unity in the community and providing accessible and healthy options at an affordable price point. When it’s up and running, citizens can also expect classes and the like tailored to the members’ tastes.
Barnes also shared some results from a community interest survey they conducted that garnered 150 respondents, the bulk of whom were from the western side of the county. Barnes said 83% most valued the freshness of products available at a store, while 73% ranked variety as most important and still others ranked price as the most important factor in their selection.
Member Yvonne Muse Brown said that affordable prices are particularly important.
“It’s really important to me that while we offer those things, we’re not pricing out the people who actually live in Indian Head,” Muse Brown said. “Local food and organic food can be really expensive. So while we do want to offer those things, we want to make sure there’s things at different price points.”
It can also be hard for local farmers to connect with people who’d like to buy their wares because of the distance they sometimes have to travel, Barnes said. A co-op would provide both a place for them to sell those products and a way for customers to have easier and quicker access. Right now, she said, she spends the bulk of many weekend days traveling to stores in La Plata to buy essential items.
“My husband will tell you every Saturday, I’m running all over,” Barnes said. “This is really about helping to bring more of those things over to this side of the county. There are people here too, quite frankly.”
The store is expected to cost as much as $4 million to open and operate, and residents will likely still be waiting several years for the store to materialize. By 2020, they hope to have their organizational structure in place and want to elect a board next September.
Paulin, who was present Sunday, offered the town’s aid as the committee works toward getting the store going.
“You have our full support in any way we can get,” Paulin said of himself and fellow councilmen. “Throughout the process the town will always be there.”
In a follow-up email, Barnes said she thought Sunday’s meeting was a good indicator of potential future success.
“It really is a team effort and will literally take a village to create and run the co-op,” Barnes wrote. “It’s a long road ahead of us, but with community buy-in and support I feel confident, together, we can make this happen.”