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community development

Solving Urban Food Deserts: An Interview with Dennis Morrow

In this month’s Social Velocity blog interview, we’re talking with Dennis Morrow, the Executive Director of Janus Youth Programs, a multi-service nonprofit agency that works with children, youth, and families in Portland, Oregon and Southwest Washington. Janus Youth caught my eye a few months ago when Village Market, a nonprofit inner city grocery store they launched, turned a year old. Their solution to inner city food deserts fascinates me, and I wanted to learn more.

You can read past interviews in our Social Innovation Interview Series here.

Nell: What was the impetus for starting the Village Market in North Portland?

Dennis: In 2006 Home Forward (formerly Housing Authority of Portland) rebuilt the former Columbia Villa Tamaracks, Oregon’s largest public housing development, through federal HOPE VI Project funds. Renamed New Columbia, redesign plans included both subsidized rental units and moderately priced homes for purchase, a new grade school, a Boys and Girls Club, service buildings, and expansion of Janus’ Village Gardens Urban Agriculture Initiative to New Columbia. This expansion included a second community-run garden site, a second children’s garden club program, and an orchard. The new community center included a park, office/community room space for services, and space for a privately run “main street” grocery store that operated for approximately 2+ years before closing.

As Village Gardens continued to expand leadership opportunities for residents in New Columbia and the adjoining low-income Tamaracks Apartment Complex (also a Home Forward property), residents and garden leaders voiced the need to reopen the local grocery store selling healthy, fresh, culturally relevant food (no alcohol/tobacco/lottery tickets) in New Columbia where 33% of the 3,000+ residents lack personal transportation and faced a 45 minute bus ride each way to the closest grocery store. These community members also had a vision that the store could be community-run and could provide additional employment opportunities for teens/adults. They also saw the store as a central meeting place for the exchange of information (focused on healthy eating/healthy living) and a community meeting place for New Columbia’s diverse residents.

Janus had worked in and with this North Portland community for over 15 years and had established ourselves as trusted partners who see our mission not as “doing for” or “doing to” but rather “working with” the community to realize the vision they have for their neighborhood and their families. Both Home Forward and the surrounding community specifically asked Janus to assume a leadership role in planning and overseeing the development/operation of the Village Market. With support from Janus’ Village Gardens staff, Janus’ Administrative Team and the Janus Board, New Columbia leaders spent nearly two years researching/surveying the community on the products that would be important to sell in the store, interviewing potential vendors, developing a business plan, and designing the store’s layout which included neighborhood murals. In 2011 after having secured foundation/public funding for start-up and operational capital, the Village Market was opened as a non-profit, community-run healthy corner grocery store.

As with every new initiative of Village Gardens, the impetus for the store came directly from the resident community’s expressed needs and desire.

Nell: The grocery store industry is a really competitive one. Do you think being a nonprofit store, instead of a for-profit one, puts you at a competitive advantage? Why or why not?

Dennis: There are definitely both pluses and minuses to our nonprofit status. The advantages it creates is that it was possible to secure public and private funding (literally worth over $800,000) for start-up and initial operational costs because of the programmatic issues also being addressed by the store including community health, employment for low-income teens and adults in an economically challenged area of Portland, community development/revitalization, social impact, and public safety. It has become a positive symbol of success for the community and in the community. What we do not know yet is the degree to which being community owned/managed and a nonprofit actually impacts on consumer behavior: do folks actually shop with us because of that? Our Store Advisory Committee is in the process of beginning customer and neighborhood surveys to answer this question more directly.

One disadvantage of being a non-profit operation is that there are very few models of success nationally to draw on. As a nonprofit youth-serving organization, running a retail business is also not part of our corporate skill set. We have a very good consultant who works hard to “train us” into the intricacies of successful store management. Ultimately, however, it is not the nonprofit status which represents our greatest challenge—it is the “healthy food” concept. The grocery industry is very competitive and, in a largely low income community, also very price sensitive. Margins on products/sales need to be much tighter than in a traditional store, and there is a smaller product mix due to space limitations. This makes it essential to have the right products on shelf so product moves, to manage inventory control very tightly, and to track pricing very closely. Featuring organic produce, for instance, instead of beer is a much more significant challenge in terms of shelf life and spoilage. Eliminating sale of alcohol/tobacco products and lottery tickets essentially removes the primary profit generators from a traditional convenience store. Essentially this puts us at a competitive disadvantage with for-profit stores but the disadvantage is not in being a non-profit but in being a small, organic/healthy food store.

Nell: One year in, it looks like Village Market could be a model for solving the growing problem of food deserts in poor, urban areas. Do you think your particularly model could be a solution to this growing problem?

Dennis: We do not believe there is a one-size-fits-all solution to food deserts. The Village Market offers one potential road map. But remember, the essence of Village Market is that it was “birthed by” the community—not Janus, not Home Forward, and not some federal grant program. We trust each community to find solutions that will work for them—but in order to do this, you have to have an incredible faith in people who live in that community. We also refer to Janus as the “vehicle” through which the Village Market vision was made real, not the “owners” of the Market. A study was just completed by the Oregon Public Health Institute on Village Market which details out the various elements that have gone into its success so far, and this study could be a guide for other communities exploring these issues.

One element which does excite us is the core concept that the Market is much more than a store. It is a community hub where neighbors can gather, it is employment opportunities in a neighborhood where there are few, it is an educational program serving as home base for a team of Community Health Workers, it promotes inter-generational growth with a “Healthy Kids Snack Corner” designed by children from the neighborhood school, and it represents a beacon of hope that the community can thrive.

On the other hand, we are not yet a solution because we do not yet know for sure if the model is sustainable over time. Sales have gone up every month for the last seven months—but due to the lower profit margins inherent in the healthy food concept, we are still “living” on our start-up subsidy funds. The outstanding question now is whether a store like this can self-sustain or whether it will require some form of ongoing subsidy. If a subsidy is required, then there is a major policy issue of where it should/could come from—in essence, who will step up to provide the irrigation necessary to turn a food desert into an oasis?

Nell: How do you integrate Village Market with the other core homeless youth work of Janus Youth? Have you ever been concerned that the market might distract the organization from your mission?

Dennis: Janus’ organizational mission is to “be a leader in creating innovative community-based services that enhance the quality of life of children, youth and families by working in partnership with others to create a safe and healthy community.” We are actually not a homeless youth service agency but a multi-service agency for children, youth, and families. Janus operates over 40 different programs at 20 different locations including long-term residential treatment, a full continuum of services for runaway/homeless youth, home visiting/parent training for teen parents/infants/children, a youth scholarship fund, and Village Gardens. Our organizational chart is actually a tree reflecting different branches of service with each leaf being an individual program. The Village Gardens limb actually has several leaves besides the market including two community garden sites, a community health-worker project, a flock of organic hens, and an organic farm run totally by teenagers. The Village Market is a “stretch” for Janus, but it is a natural leaf on the Village Gardens limb—and when we were asked to be the vehicle for this community vision, our mission clearly tells us that is exactly what we should do. Each of Janus’ “limbs” of service operate with a high level of autonomy but with a core set of values based in Safety and Respect: creating a Safe environment for staff, youth, and families to grow, learn and heal and building Respectful relationships with others which empower them to find effective solutions for themselves. So the Village Market does not so much “integrate” with our mission as it “fits” within our mission.

Nell: The Village Market was obviously a big risk for Janus Youth to take on. Were board and staff initially concerned about the risks and how did you overcome those fears?

Dennis: This type of venture represents a huge risk to any organization. Our leadership staff and Board were extremely concerned particularly around the financial area. Starting up a new business requires substantial start-up capital as well as subsidized operational capital for an initial period of time. One of our Board members owns a business consulting firm, and he personally worked with the community planning team to build a sound business plan. This plan also had substantial input from our “grocery store consultant”. We then worked with Home Forward to solicit funding for the business plan and were successful in raising over $800,000. Home Forward contributes free rent and utilities as part of their investment. The Board approved opening the store based on two parameters: 1) We would not open until all of the start-up/operational capital in the business plan had been raised; and 2) Once open, we will operate the store as long as it does not require a subsidy from Janus. We were successful in meeting “1” and are now in the process of testing out “2”—but the Board is clear that we cannot afford to drain resources from other program areas in order to support ongoing operation of the store. Either it will reach a “break-even” point as a stand-alone business or we will need to find the operational subsidy necessary to maintain it on an ongoing basis.

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