ST. LOUIS – It used to require a car trip or a bus ride, but now shopping for fresh produce in the inner city only requires a short walk for Nadia Russell and her children.

As they picked out the apples, tomatoes and other produce that they would eat for the week, the Russell family took advantage of one of the first grocery stores of its kind in the St. Louis area.

Old North Grocery Co-op opened its doors, closing up a food availability concern for neighborhood families.

“The nearest supermarket is just a few miles away, but if you don’t have a car like 41 percent of the people in this neighborhood then getting to that supermarket takes quite a lot of time,” said Kara Lubischer, a University of Missouri Extension Community Development Specialist.

MU Extension helped the co-op work toward its opening last month with economic development resources and assistance. Its focus groups found that residents typically rode 30 to 40 minutes by bus to reach the nearest grocery option, which creates what researchers call a “food desert” in the middle of urban America.

Now they can walk to get healthy food in minutes.

“You’re in the city but you have the best of both worlds with a grocery store like this,” Russell said. “People are just so used to buying what’s affordable, what’s cheapest, and that usually meant buying everything in a package, but this store helps change that.”

Prices are affordable and produce is either grown in the adjacent community garden or shipped in from farms within a 100-mile radius.

Sean Thomas, director of the Old North St. Louis Restoration Group, said the grocery store is a final step to provide food for five adjacent neighborhoods. Its addition hopefully will assist the economic rejuvenation here, convincing families and businesses to move back to the area.

“If people are here shopping for watermelon and green peppers they may also pick up something else if there are other stores here,” Thomas said. “Until now residents were taking their dollars out of the neighborhood to buy groceries, but this keeps them right here circulating where they live.”

It adds another option to a farmers market started four years ago and the community garden launched last year. Any resident can shop at the store, but they can take more ownership of their food by paying a one-time $80 membership per household. This earns them a 10 percent discount, an ownership share in the store and the opportunity to vote on the store’s board of directors.

Cooking demonstrations further strengthen the connection between the store, the farmers market and the community garden, which grew more than 1,300 pounds of healthy produce in 2009 that it sold at below market rate prices to the community.

All this bodes well for the health of the neighborhood, especially in a year where First Lady Michelle Obama has been touring the country lauding healthy food choices to combat childhood obesity.

“This is a unique model to closing the food gap,” Lubischer said. “We hope that this model really gets replicated and that we’re able to share the success of this project with other communities.”

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