It’s been eight years since residents of the Allied/Dunn’s Marsh neighborhood have had a full-service grocery store within a mile of their homes. Efforts from outside sources to provide short- and long-term relief for the neighborhood’s worsening food security issue have not solved the problem, and now some believe the answer lies in efforts from within the community, even if it means waiting longer.

Since securing a low-interest loan from the city in 2015, the neighborhood-based group Allied Community Cooperative has been juggling educating themselves on the process of starting and running a grocery cooperative while also doing the legwork to keep the project moving forward.

Annette Miller
Annette Miller

“We are still developing ourselves by trying to figure out ways in which to help the community to be able to address the planning, design, policy, and fundraising that’s required to be in the center of this work,” said Annette Miller, current president of the Allied Community Co-op board. Miller is also a member of the Madison365 board of directors. “It’s not easy and that’s why it’s taking a little bit longer and it will take a little bit longer, but the benefit will be it will have been owned and supported fully by the community.”

Miller is a former mayoral aide who helped write the Mayor’s Vision for Allied Drive in 2006 to improve the low-income neighborhood.

The cooperative has been vying for the community’s ability to be central to solving its own problems since applying for the city’s forgivable loan to bring a grocery store to the neighborhood, which was originally meant to attract a low-cost grocery chain, said Ruth Rohlich, a business development specialist for the city of Madison.

But there weren’t enough low-income residents in a five-mile radius of the Allied community for low-cost grocers to make a profit, Rohlich said. She said wealthier neighborhoods nearby like Nakoma make the average household income of the area look higher than it is on Allied Drive.

“That is one of the challenges in Madison with our very racialized and very pocketed poverty issues, is that they’re small communities spread throughout the city,” she said. “[Allied] is an isolated area with the design of the Beltline and Midvale Boulevard.”

So, instead, the local co-op took the City loan to develop a healthy corner store in the area. Even though it isn’t scheduled to be open for another year and a half, organizers insist this way is best.

“Because this is going to be, in the end, community-owned. The steps that are being taken to bring people in just take time ” said Rohlich.

Miller also believes that limited City government influence and more community input is ideal.

“People who have the lived experience really have been wanting to be the decision makers and they want to be in the center of the decision,” she said.

According to Miller, the group was to begin determining the store’s location in February and would take six months to make a decision. She is unsure, though, if they’ll have a site solidified by July. Rohlich also acknowledged that the group is behind schedule in some of the planning components. But despite questions or concerns about how the neighborhood is getting a new park before a new grocery store, both she and Miller believe in the long-term impact of such an arduous process.

“In Madison, we need new solutions to these kind of issues, especially around food insecurity and employment,” said Rohlich. “It’s a hard way to go, with organizing and a lot of unpaid work from residents who would benefit from paid work, but this could really become transformative and really change the direction of how we deal with issues relating to poverty. This will be an asset owned by the community, not the City.”

Both women believe that once the site for the store is chosen the process will take off. Where the site is and whether it will be located in an existing building or a new development will ultimately determine the timeline of the project and the additional funds needed to complete it.

“This is about food and access to food and I understand why people are frustrated,” said Miller.

In the meantime, the cooperative is brainstorming short term solutions for residents’ food access, while still relying on those already in place to transport people to grocery stores.

“Let’s be honest, this community doesn’t have the same type of resources that other neighborhoods do so that they’re able to move faster and they’re having to deal with a lot of stigma that doesn’t help,” said Miller.

Miller believes opening a community-owned grocery store will lift the spirits of residents and give them “the wherewithal to solve their own problems,” no matter what’s happening outside their community.

She says there’s a “strong possibility” the store will open in November 2018 and that she is remaining hopeful.

“In the end, it could turn into something that serves people in a deeper way than just access to food,” said Rohlich.