After seven years of kitchen-table and Zoom organizing, a multi-stakeholder, cooperative, community-owned grocery store is taking shape in Louisville, KY. In October, the metro council of Louisville’s combined city-county government voted to allocate $3.5 million to help make a co-op grocery a reality.
There are still many steps to take. The grocery store has over 600 member-owners; we need more. We secured $3.5 million from the city; we need to raise another $3 million. And, of course, there are always contingencies with public money. We are under pressure to meet agreed-upon timelines for site preparation, store design, permitting, and construction. If we fall short, the money from Louisville’s city-county government could be rescinded. But we are getting there.
Construction is anticipated to start in the third quarter of 2023. In 2024, the Louisville Community Grocery should open its doors in Smoketown, a downtown neighborhood and the first of the city’s Black settlements.
It’s been a long journey to get here. This is our story.
Louisville’s History of Black Exclusion
The need for the Louisville store reflects familiar watermarks of racial capitalism. Like many cities, Louisville is highly segregated by neighborhood. Through the middle of the 20th century, discriminatory practices by the federal and city governments and the local real estate industry prevented Black residents from purchasing homes outside of designated Black neighborhoods, which were redlined. Smoketown, just east of the city’s downtown core, is one of these neighborhoods.
Louisville is known nationally for its busing initiative, which was intended to integrate the county school system. In 2007, the US Supreme Court deemed this initiative unconstitutional. Subsequent efforts to create a diverse student body have been impacted by funding constraints and political and parental pressures and foundered, leaving the schools as segregated as ever.
Most notorious perhaps, is Louisville’s longstanding record of racism and the Louisville Metro Police Department’s regular misconduct. The state police bill of rights makes holding police accountable for acts of racism difficult, and a previous effort to establish a civilian review board failed. During months-long protests spurred by Breonna Taylor’s murder, the police department indiscriminately tear gassed, shot rubber bullets at, and harassed peaceful protestors. In one incident, an LMPD officer shot rubber bullets at a young Black woman. In another incident, the Kentucky State Police, who were assisting LMPD, killed a beloved business owner in the Black community. Black protestors were captured inside a church for hours, and the Kentucky General Assembly’s only Black female representative was arrested and charged with rioting.
In response to the protests and adverse national publicity, Louisville put into place a civilian review board. The LMPD has stymied the board’s efforts to investigate complaints of misconduct. Reporters and community members have also complained about LMPD’s failure to respond to records requests.
And, as in so many other cities, Louisville’s predominantly Black neighborhoods are subject to food apartheid. For decades, supermarkets have been scarce in these areas, another result of destructive urban redevelopment and redlining. Downtown grocery stores have recently disappeared, exacerbating food apartheid: between 2016 and 2018, five grocery stores in Louisville’s urban core closed. Not coincidentally, dollar store outlets have flourished in the same areas. It does not surprise, then, that Black neighborhoods face health disparities relative to their white neighbors, with marked differences in rates of infant mortality, asthma, gun violence, and life expectancy.
A New Co-op Vision Emerges
The largely volunteer team that initiated the grocery co-op has attempted to learn from and build on earlier grassroots efforts to address Louisville’s food inequities, including a series of initiatives extending back to the early aughts that sought to connect regional farmers with urban shoppers, as well as efforts to create a Food Policy Council, support community gardens, and develop new processing and marketing options for food producers and venders. Some of these projects were top-down in conception and execution. Ohers suffered from short planning horizons or insufficient community outreach.
Meanwhile, a proliferation of farmers markets fueled the local food movement but marginally addressed food access. The most successful initiative of the late aughts, New Roots was from the get-go concerned with racial disparities. With an emphasis on community building, it has provided hundreds of families with affordable produce. This organizing wave taught Louisville food activists the value of persistent, deep organization and informed co-op organizing as people began to gather at kitchen tables, public libraries, and churches in 2015.
Two White women and one Black woman, who shared a history of food and farm activism, led the initial campaign to form Louisville Community Grocery. Until 2019, most engaged volunteers were White and motivated by concerns with food justice. The composition of leadership shifted soon after the grocery’s formal incorporation in mid-2019, with the first LCG and LACE (Louisville Association for Community Economics, the nonprofit developer of the grocery store) board elections seeing candidates of color chosen for a majority of seats.
The current Louisville co-op organizing effort is committed to BIPOC leadership, a departure from earlier food activism practices. The organizing group is willing to move slowly to build deeper relationships with residents. It envisions a cooperative grocery store as a first step in creating a larger cooperative ecosystem—one that may ultimately help to redress widespread economic inequities in and around Louisville.
Early team members included local, regional, and national experts in cooperative development. The original model for LACE was Co-op Cincy, which has successfully incubated an ecosystem of worker-owned cooperatives in Cincinnati, located about 100 miles northeast of Louisville.
LACE has focused on raising funds (over $4.5 million to date) to develop, construct, and outfit the store. Because LACE was volunteer led for years, not hiring permanent co-executive directors until March 2022, board members and other volunteers secured most of these funds via grant-writing efforts. Co-op organizers also pursued an ownership campaign to increase the number of member-owners. An ownership share costs $150 or $25, depending on a person’s economic circumstances. The volunteers also shopped for land, investigating at least 14 different properties, and commissioned market analyses for many of them. Along the way, they discovered the challenges of identifying and determining the feasibility of commercial real estate.
Throughout, the LACE-LCG team has benefitted from the national cooperative ecosystem—receiving guidance, technical support, and encouragement. A young nonprofit, LACE is also learning to navigate private philanthropy, public funding, and public/private financing, as well as governance and operational matters. Additionally, LACE, like our partner organizations, Co-op Cincy and Co-op Dayton, is beginning to take admittedly small and aspirational steps to nurture other cooperative enterprises. Currently, LACE is focused on launching LCG, mindful that this first, huge step may attract others to cooperative initiatives.
A Co-op for Whom?
The original group of three founders and other volunteers worked with a local attorney and a research team from the University of Louisville Brandeis School of Law to draft the co-op’s original bylaws. While the team recommended taking an investor class, and while some LACE members wanted workers to have a greater voice in decision making, the majority initially wanted an equal vote for each member, whether that person was a consumer or worker. A draft of the bylaws and the story of their formation is available in this article.
The co-op has 600 consumer members already, far more than the number of workers the store will employ. Given our original structure, consumer votes would vastly outweigh worker votes, rankling some. In response, and with assistance from Co-op Dayton, the bylaws were retooled to recognize two classes of owners—consumers and workers—with a weighted voting system. Once there are seven worker-owners, workers’ votes will be weighted in all general membership votes, so that their vote will count as 40 percent of the total vote, with consumer members votes counting for the remaining 60 percent. This ensures that worker-owners will have a significant say in how the co-op is run.
Currently, LCG owners are considering whether to add an investor class. When a grassroots group with fluctuating membership and advisors engages in decision making, organization building is an iterative process. The addition of more classes in the multi-stakeholder framework reflects lessons learned over seven years of self-education, activism, and fundraising.
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LACE and the Law School Diversity Committee worked together to host a series of events to educate the community about cooperatives and their history in Black communities. They reached out to organizations beyond the usual social justice map—including library and business groups—to build long-term partnerships.
Enlisting additional partners, including the Louisville Free Public Library and the Louisville Independent Business Alliance, as well as other advocacy groups, they hosted a visit by Dr. Jessica Gordon-Nembhard, author of Collective Courage. Her work had influenced the early grocery activists, and her visit helped catalyze coalition building in Louisville. As part of this visit, Gordon-Nembhard spoke at the public library and an LIBA-hosted reception and joined a panel with Sadiqa Reynolds, then CEO of the Louisville Urban League.
University staff, faculty, and students were among the early supporters of a multi-stakeholder cooperative, offering public validation of this unfamiliar idea. (Universities can also play a vital role as economic anchors for co-op endeavors). In addition to supporting the Gordon-Nembhard visit, members of the university community contributed to the co-op project in numerous ways. A business school team conducted the initial feasibility and market study for LCG. Three students published Courier Journal op-eds applauding the grocery initiative. To learn about the attributes residents would like a grocery co-op to have, the university’s sustainability program developed a survey that volunteers, most of whom were students, administered for LACE to hundreds of residents. Researchers from the College of Education and Human Resources published a case study of the challenges faced by grocery cooperatives serving communities of color.1
The LACE/LCG team used some simple measures to encourage wider involvement. They held regular monthly meetings at the Joshua Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church in the city’s West End, and they secured a grant to cover childcare to enable those with young children to attend. To facilitate volunteer recruitment, they developed a series of helpful tasks suitable for recurrent or one-off participation. For instance, volunteers were asked to collect comparative price data at corner and convenience stores. Volunteers also attended community events to share information about the grocery co-op and survey residents.
Activists also partnered with community-oriented businesses to draw in new owners and volunteers. For instance, for three years, volunteers and a Smoketown bike shop have co-hosted a jolly, holiday fundraiser, where attendees make wreathes out of old bicycle rims. To brighten the grim 2020 season, the group worked with multiple nonprofits, small businesses, and arts groups to celebrate the “12 days of Cooperation,” featuring events from tree-pruning lessons to yoga classes and concluding with a virtual gala concert.
Mindful that food-insecure communities lack access to decent produce and basic staples now, volunteers began holding pop-up markets in Central and West Louisville neighborhoods in mid-2019. Not only did these miniature farmers’ markets offer seasonal items at good prices, but they also helped the grocery connect with local growers. As the pandemic exacerbated food insecurity, the grocery team, together with other food justice activists, joined in the #FeedTheWest initiative. Over eight weeks in the summer of 2020, LCG purchased and helped distribute thousands of dollars’ worth of produce from Black farmers.
That summer, the city announced $3.5 million in grant funding for LCG to build a community-owned grocery. LACE was one of two bidders and won the contract in 2021. Unfortunately, after several months, the uneasy negotiations fell apart when the city government determined that LCG had not met their timetable for land acquisition and other metrics. Fortunately, a year later, LCG had obtained site control. This October, it secured a $3.5 million city award for construction. While construction has not begun, we believe that this time, with clear site control established, the money is more secure.
Getting Site Control
How did LCG get site control? A one-acre parcel in Smoketown that LCG now owns, the long-vacant site, former home of the Louisville Slugger factory, is a gift from the Community Foundation of Louisville.
Such donations by foundations are not common. Why did the foundation bequeath a property with a declared value (2021) of $625,000 for a fledgling grocery co-op? The donation is the result of the foundation’s attention to Smoketown residents, its commitment to trust-based philanthropy, and the neat fit between these two priorities and visions for a community-owned grocery in an historically excluded neighborhood.
As Ramona Dallum, the foundation’s vice-president of equity and impact, explained, the land offered their philanthropic organization an opportunity to think and operate differently; with this gift, they could shift power to Smoketown residents.
In 2015, Hillerich & Bradsby, owners of Louisville Slugger Company, donated the land to the foundation. The Hillerich family, Dallum recounted, wanted to benefit the neighborhood, envisioning a green space for local children to enjoy. The foundation team explored creating a Boys and Girls Club location or a park designed by nearby Bernheim Aboretum staff. Another option was to sell the land to generate funds for Smoketown. But that, Dallum said, would have left power with the foundation.
Through conversations with residents, team learned that residents were most concerned with a lack of grocery stores and access to healthy food. Another priority was addressing affordable housing and creeping gentrification, an ongoing threat given the neighborhood’s proximity to the expanding downtown health science/medical complex. Indeed, people put food and shelter ahead of amenities like parks.
The foundation was willing to support the cooperative because of their commitment to centering trust and relying on the lived experience of grantees.
Around this time, the foundation became aware of LCG, as well as another local organization, Rebuilding Our Urban Neighborhood Dwellings (REBOUND, Inc) which aims to create a community land trust. Both community groups were responding to people’s immediate priorities and offered the prospects of wealth creation and leadership to residents.
The foundation recognized that LACE faced a chicken-and-egg problem, one common to many cooperative founders. The nonprofit lacked sufficient capital to proceed with the store. A big obstacle to fundraising was the lack of a secured site, but without funds, how could LACE purchase property?
The foundation was willing to support the cooperative because of their commitment to centering trust and relying on the lived experience of grantees. When asked if she had qualms about the gift to LACE, Dallum expressed concern that the cooperative might accelerate gentrification; as has been painfully demonstrated, nice food outlets, even cooperative ones, can exert harms. She worried, too, that the store might turn into yet another well-intentioned, White-led project. Knowing that co-op decision-making remains in the hands of its member-owners, the foundation provided a renewable multi-year grant to fund community relations initiatives encouraging member-ownership among long-time residents of Smoketown and other historically Black communities.
Initial Lessons and Next Steps
Food co-ops can and must collaborate with those addressing systemic racism, health equity, and economic justice.
LACE has taken away valuable lessons. Food co-ops must collaborate with those addressing systemic racism, health equity, and economic justice. Such collaborations may be playful: Christmas wreathes from bicycle parts! Volunteers can take on tasks like grant writing and successfully compete with organizations that have professional grant writers, especially as more donors allow for video and audio submissions. Critical support and advice can be found by reaching out to participants of similar projects in other cities. Finally, groups can approach community foundations or other key donor institutions to explore novel forms of philanthropy, such as land donation.
Securing a site for the Louisville grocery store and funding from city government followed years of grassroots self-education, countless hours of volunteer organizing, and creative advocacy. Of course, we still must build—then operate—a well-run, community-owned grocery store. The work has just begun, but we are excited to take the next steps.
- See also L. Halliday and M. Foster, “A tale of two co-ops in two cities,” Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development, 9.2 (2020): 239–254, https://doi.org/10.5304/jafscd.2020.092.005.