The fruit and veg shop for all
Wednesday, 4th March 2020 at 8:29 am
The Community Grocer is more than just a place to stock up on fresh and affordable produce. It’s fighting food insecurity, and carving out a space in the community for all to feel included, writes Maggie Coggan in this month’s Spotlight on social enterprise.
Tucked behind community flats in the inner-city Melbourne suburb of Carlton, the Community Grocer is easy to miss if you don’t know what you’re looking for.
Each Friday the enterprise transforms the public housing complex’s concrete communal area into a bustling community hub.
Trestle tables loaded up with fresh fruit, herbs, and veggies line the area where residents of the nearby flats, university students and surrounding Carlton locals sort through the modest but varied selection of produce for the week ahead.
A BBQ is set up to one side, cooking up food from the market for shoppers to sample, and a large woven mat is rolled out with a tub of toys to entertain the kids while their parents shop or chat with other people at the market.
“It’s a little quiet today because of the cold weather, but on a good day we can get up to 200 people coming through,” Tess Gardiner, the market manager, tells Pro Bono News.
Food with dignity
After working in the emergency food relief sector for many years, the co-founder of the Community Grocer, Russell Shields, set up the organisation as a social enterprise to tackle food insecurity with a different approach.
“The emergency food-aid programs on offer are non-nutritious, often undignified, varied and sporadic in their service,” Shields tells Pro Bono News.
“So what we wanted to do was to provide a highly nutritious fruit and vegetable access program that was regular in its supply, but also offers the dignity, choice and nutrition for people who need it.”
The first market was set up in Carlton in 2014, sourcing fruit and vegetables from local wholesalers which are then sold onto customers 60 per cent cheaper than any other local outlet.
Shields explains they have a standard markup on all produce of 25 to 30 per cent to cover overhead costs, but their main priority is to keep stock affordable for their customers.
The market now runs across Carlton, Fitzroy, Heidelberg West, Fawkner and Packenham, spending one day a week in each location. Seasonal boxes of staple fruit and vegetables can also be purchased and picked up from the enterprises community hubs located around Melbourne.
With one in three of the grocer’s customers food insecure, and 86 per cent in the low income bracket, the locations of these markets have been carefully selected to target people that struggle to access fresh fruit and vegetables because of price and mobility constraints.
And it seems to be having an impact.
The enterprise’s annual impact evaluations, done in partnership with Monash University, found 82 per cent of customers have increased their fruit and vegetable consumption.
And with the market’s focus on stocking culturally appropriate produce, 90 per cent of customers reported the range has allowed them to cook culturally appropriate meals.
Shields explains that finding out what kind of produce each of their communities wanted was an important part of making the enterprise work.
“Everyone’s different and everyone has different tastes and often in food-aid programs those foods aren’t provided,” he says.
“Each market is tailored directly towards those local communities. For instance, our Carlton grocer market located within the public housing estate, has a high African population, so we stock a lot of okra and root vegetables they like cooking with.”
For Ikran, who started regularly shopping at the Carlton grocer after taking her son to a nearby childcare centre, the diversity of produce is something that keeps her coming back to the market.
“I like coming here because it’s close to everything in my life, and they stock the product I like,” Ikran tells Pro Bono News.
It’s about more than just the fruit and veg
Another thing that keeps her coming back to the market is feeling included.
“It’s definitely a lot more inclusive and a more relaxed environment than other places to shop in the area,” she says.
Ikran is not alone in this feeling. The grocer’s impact data found that 90 per cent of customers feel more connected to the community as a result of shopping at the market, and 70 per cent of customers have met new people because they shopped at the market.
Shields says creating an environment that invites this warm sense of community is something they have thought about and worked hard on over the years.
“We want our customers to feel like it’s their market. It’s why we locate our markets in public community spaces, such as the public housing estate in Carlton. That is their space, their backyard,” he says.
He says that recently, a group of African women have started running tea ceremonies, and selling scarves at the Carlton market, which has really opened up the space to more people coming through.
“They’re starting their own little community meetings because the space is open and it’s a time they can connect with each other and other people who come to the market,” Shields says.
“These people might shop at a major retailer and are treated terribly and they’re just another customer who is often seen as problematic. But we don’t want it to be like that, we want to celebrate that diversity. We celebrate their culture.”
He also says having a market that is open to everyone to shop at is an important part of breaking down barriers in the community.
“We get a range of people that shop at our markets, including those working in corporate Melbourne who come down because it’s great quality produce at great prices on their doorstep,” he says.
“And it offers a cultural experience that you just don’t get at your average supermarket.”
It’s one of the reasons Carlton local, Jen, comes to the market to do her weekly shop.
“It’s just got a really nice feel to it, it’s close, far better priced than Coles and Woolies and most of the time the produce is fresher and better than other places,” Jen tells Pro Bono News.
“When we first came, we were unsure if it was something that was just for the people that live in the flats or not.
“So we spoke to the people that worked here and they told us it was for the whole community and it was actually really helpful if the whole community comes along because it keeps the market alive.”
It’s a fine line
With the market now running in five locations, Shields says one of the biggest challenges has been maintaining purpose with growth.
“Our core purpose is our impact, not profit, so we have to marry the two,” he says.
“It would be easy to say, well, let’s just put the prices up because we need to generate more income, but that goes against a model of supporting the community and our customers.”
The enterprise is currently 77 per cent self-funded through revenue created via produce, and 23 per cent reliant on philanthropic donations.
Shields says that at the moment the organisation is still reliant on philanthropic funding to be sustainable, but the ultimate goal is to one day be as financially self-sufficient as possible.
He does add however that no enterprise should be afraid of balancing between philanthropy and enterprise.
“As long as the focus is on the impact you have, and ensuring that you have a diversified income stream to maintain viability, I don’t see a problem with balancing between the two,” he says.
He says while the past five years of proving their impact, establishing a loyal customer base and opening five sites have been challenging, they are now at a stable point where they are looking at growing their impact.
“We’re now looking at centralising our distribution and our purchasing which will mean more control over where our supply is coming from so we can support more local suppliers of food like 3,000acres and the Cardinia Food Circles Project, which are growing food in a really sustainable, community-oriented way,” he says.
“We’re also looking into some really new exciting distribution models through partnerships with Good Cycles using e-bikes to deliver to community hubs.
“These are all things that will increase both the sales and our impact.”
Live in Melbourne? Find a Community Grocer near you here.