Gail Rosenblum
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Molly Baeverstad took her first food co-op job for a practical reason: to pay the bills. She moved on to nonprofit fundraising, but eventually found her way back for reasons more passionate in nature. The granddaughter of farmers, Baeverstad remembers “bags and bags” of zucchini and tomatoes dropped on her parents’ stoop. As a kid, she thought everybody ate that way, unaware of how people of limited means are often denied the health benefits and simple pleasures of fresh fruits and vegetables. Now marketing manager for Minneapolis’ Eastside Food Co-op, Baeverstad is leading an effort to make fresh food accessible and affordable for all. She tells us more about the program, called FARE.

Q: So, FARE is?

A: FARE stands for Food Access to Restore Equity. It’s an affordability program to help shoppers stretch their dollars at the co-op.

Q: Why the need for FARE?

A: The fresh food gap is such a lingering problem. Anecdotally, folks living on more limited means look at fresh produce, particularly out of season, and say, “Oh, gosh, I can’t really afford that.” Fresh is where you make budget cuts. Before I joined the marketing team at Eastside, I worked for Appetite For Change in north Minneapolis. In my time there, I learned a lot about the complexity of food injustice in our community and the power of food to bring people together. With John Lacaria, our general manager, we talked about how Eastside could better meet the needs of our whole community — not just folks who are already owners and shoppers — but everyone. We talked to nonprofit organizations working to fight food insecurity. We talked to food shelves, the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) office, and with SNAP [food stamp] users participating in the Market Bucks program at the Northeast Farmers Market. Overwhelmingly, we heard that people using SNAP and WIC benefits want better access to fresh foods.

Q: How does FARE work? Do users have a card they present?

A: Any shopper enrolled in [state and federal food assistance programs] is eligible. To sign up for FARE, a shopper presents their EBT card and fills out a short enrollment form. We create accounts for each FARE participant in our database and they’re assigned a number just like a co-op owner. Once a shopper enrolls in FARE, their discount is applied automatically at the register. FARE participants confirm their eligibility by making a purchase at the co-op using their EBT card once every 90 days. That’s it; no additional paperwork.

Q: How big a discount?

A: A 20% discount on fresh fruits and vegetables and staple items throughout the store. Discount-eligible items are indicated with a purple Eastside FARE icon. We’ve also developed budget-friendly recipes and shopping lists to help folks save even more.

Q: How can you afford to offer these discounts? Do you have foundation support?

A: At this point, the co-op is offering FARE without any grant or foundation support. The cost of program discounts is coming out of our marketing budget. Other co-ops are tackling this problem in different ways, such as offering an affordability path to ownership with shares discounted or a global storewide discount in the 10% range.

Q: Does northeast Minneapolis have “food deserts?”

A: According to 2015 census data, Northeast’s Marshall Terrace neighborhood and nearby Columbia Heights are considered food deserts, with low food access and income indicators that make regular grocery store shopping a challenge. Often in urban areas, a food desert can more accurately be described as a “food swamp” — there isn’t necessarily a lack of food, but the neighborhood is flooded with unhealthy, highly processed, low-nutrient food from convenience stores and fast food restaurants. For many of our shoppers, Eastside is the only grocery store within walking distance or a short public transit trip. We’re really an anchor in this community. But anyone who qualifies can use FARE, no matter what neighborhood they call home.

Q: Reviving neighborhoods is generally a good thing. But you see the other side of that — such as people forced out of their neighborhoods as rents rise.

A: The gentrification of northeast is undeniable, and deeply complicated. You look at photographs of Central Avenue from 15 or 20 years ago and you see a number of vacant storefronts. In the last decade, many of those vacancies have been filled by local coffee shops, family-run restaurants and other small businesses. Eastside has definitely benefited from the growing popularity of our neighborhood — dozens of breweries, trendy distilleries, new apartment buildings going up seemingly every week. But the impact on renters is heartbreaking. I live in the Sheridan neighborhood, where I rent a duplex. We’re seeing longtime residents relocating to north Minneapolis or more affordable suburbs, and they’re leaving behind schools, community centers and churches.

Q: You could say FARE is an attempt to hold on to them. How many participants do you have so far?

A: Since the public launch about two months ago, we have 70 individuals and families enrolled. We are working to get translations of our program materials so we can reach more people, beginning with Spanish and Somali. We hope the program will grow.