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Maurice Richmond standing in front of fridge in grocery story

Maurice Richmond is manager of the locally owned nonprofit Go Green Community Fresh Market in Englewood, which offers ready-to-eat meal options from local vendors, and a deli and coffee counter. He had questions when he learned of Mayor Brandon Johnson’s exploration of a city-owned grocery store. “My first thought was, great,” Richmond says. “My second thought was, ‘How is that going to look?’ ”

Anthony Vazquez

Could the city of Chicago run its own grocery stores to close the gaps in low-access neighborhoods?

Maurice Richmond, the manager of a locally owned, nonprofit Englewood grocery and former manager of the Whole Foods that closed in the same community, has stayed in the neighborhood because he believes in providing food access, not because it’s easy.

Go Green Community Fresh Market provides low-cost, high quality options for residents who have seen store after store abandon the South Side neighborhood. The market includes ready-to-eat meal options from local vendors and a deli and coffee counter.

“There’s so much that goes behind this that people just don’t realize,” he said during a shift at his current spot, which offers options that mirror the items Richmond stocked at Whole Foods. “My vision is to see — with some of my knowledge, with the things I know — if stores like this can make it.”

That’s why Richmond had questions when he learned Mayor Brandon Johnson’s office was exploring the possibility of opening a city-owned grocery store aimed at shrinking food deserts on the South and West sides.

“My first thought was, great,” Richmond said. “My second thought was, ‘How is that going to look? How is that going to roll out?’”

grocery store items on shelf

Grocery items for sale at the Go Green Community Fresh Market at 1207 W. 63rd St.

Anthony Vazquez

Johnson announced last month a plan to consider a city-owned grocery store to help areas where many residents have less access to major supermarkets with the closure of stores such as Walmart and Whole Foods.

“All Chicagoans deserve to live near convenient, affordable, healthy grocery options. We know access to grocery stores is already a challenge for many residents, especially on the South and West sides,” Johnson said in a statement.

However, like Richmond, other local grocers and food industry experts have asked the same question about Johnson’s proposal: Would the city do a good job of running a business?

That depends on who you ask.

Equitable access to quality food should be treated as a public good, said Ameya Pawar, senior adviser at the Economic Security Project, a nonprofit partnering with the city to study ways a city-owned store could take shape.

In a 2022 column he co-authored in the Sun-Times about ending food deserts, Pawar pointed to Midway and O’Hare Airports as examples of businesses operated by the city that are “complex and professionally run.”

“There’s no reason why the city couldn’t do the same with grocery stores,” he wrote.

Pawar, a former 47th Ward alderperson, told the Sun-Times while there are “legitimate” critiques of publicly owned businesses, he wants to eliminate the idea that “markets can do no wrong and the government can do no right.”

“That ideology has led us to this idea that the only way we can ever open a grocery store, the only way we can ever get big businesses to open in communities that they don’t want to open in is by begging them, prodding them, paying them,” said Pawar. “And then they’re here to take the money today, and they’re gone tomorrow.”

He cites water systems and state-run liquor stores in 16 states as evidence of government’s ability to run businesses.

But grocery industry experts aren’t sure a city-owned store is the answer.

Phil Lempert, a grocery and food trends expert based in California dubbed the “Supermarket Guru,” said he loves the idea but has doubts about its sustainability.

Lempert previously worked in Chicago and is familiar with its grocery landscape.

“Unless there is state or federal funds that can offset whatever losses,” he warned, “it’s probably not going to succeed. It’s not just about having a grant once. You’ve got to have commitment for 10 years in order to make it work.”

The city would also need to pay higher wages to entice people to work at the store, he said. To provide low-cost, affordable healthy food, it would need to do what the Englewood market does and would likely operate at a loss.

Pawar acknowledged there would be challenges.

“I understand we’re talking about high-volume and low-margin businesses,” Pawar said. “It isn’t for the faint of heart. But it also isn’t rocket science.”

And a city-owned grocer, Pawar said, wouldn’t only be focused on profit.

“There are other calculations that must be taken into account ... well-being, reduction of toxic stress, increase of life expectancy,” he said. “That’s why you want to treat some things like a public good. The returns are calculated differently than a private business.”

Still, all financial models, including profit and nonprofit, need to be studied for Chicago, he said.

Lempert pointed to the Salvation Army’s DMG Foods in Baltimore as an example of a nonprofit local grocer operating in a large city, similar to Go Green in Chicago. It opened in 2018 but closed three years later due to a “lack of customers,” the Salvation Army said.

Lempert has some advice for the mayor’s office: Find an operator that knows the business; spend time in the community to know what residents want; have a large funding commitment; and make the store for-profit.

“Nonprofits who have tried supermarkets, it typically doesn’t work. The supermarket industry is a very intricate, sometimes strange business,” he said. “I’m saying this politely, but the government shouldn’t be running a supermarket. I don’t think they know how to.”

A number of obstacles face nonprofit grocers, according to Nonprofit Quarterly, a publication that examines nonprofit organizations and management. Those hurdles include lack of grocery expertise, low profits, high expenses and an ever-changing industry, the publication noted in 2019.

Some nonprofit grocery stores launched across the country to address low-food access have not lasted even five years, including Washington, D.C.’s Good Foods Market, which stayed open a year, and Oakland, California’s Community Foods Market, which had a three-year run.

But other nonprofit grocers like Jubilee Market in Waco, Texas, are still in operation. Jubilee, owned by Mission Waco, has been open since 2016. The store offers $25 shares in the store to raise money and encourages shoppers with higher incomes to frequent the store, its website says.

Rural areas with populations hovering around 1,000 in Florida and Kansas have opened municipality-owned stores, but they can’t be compared to a large city like Chicago, Lempert said.

The village of Cody in Nebraska has a population under 200, with a Circle C Market run by the school district and managed by students. Erie, Kansas, a town of 1,037 people, bought its only grocery store to stop it from closing.

A study exploring Johnson’s idea is expected to be finished early next year, said S. Mayumi Grigsby, Johnson’s policy chief.

Whether the city takes an approach to a grocery store like the one in Waco, Texas, Grigsby said collaboration with community members will be key to getting support for any proposal.

Grigsby didn’t say whether the city would run a store in addition to owning it, or if the operators would be city-affiliated or an outside party with business experience.

“We will make sure that all of those [options] are put on display and studied, and then ultimately, the policymakers will decide what the best route is, along with the community,” Pawar said.

Whichever option the city goes with, there are community residents looking to open their own grocery stores.

A community grocer is a key part of the Garfield Park Rite to Wellness Collaborative’s planned “walkable village” on the West Side, where an Aldi that closed in 2021 would be replaced.

The city purchased the former Aldi property in 2022 and is fielding proposals for the site and asking developers to include a grocery.

Liz Abunaw, owner of the 40 Acres Fresh Market pop-up and grocery delivery service, is developing a brick-and-mortar grocery at 5713 W. Chicago Ave. in Austin.

Her grocery has received some city help and is expected to get some more in an upcoming grant, according to a city spokesperson. But, generally, the difficulty for community grocers is “we don’t have years of accumulated wealth and capital behind us,” she said.

Lempert wondered if the city could back a local entrepreneur like Abunaw.

“This business is a difficult business,” Lempert said. “So why start from scratch, just to have more problems and issues than you need to?”

Mariah Rush and Michael Loria are staff reporters at the Chicago Sun-Times via Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster the paper’s coverage of communities on the South Side and West Side.

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