A Red Circle runs a variety of programs and projects in predominately Black communities of North St. Louis County (“North County”) focused on healthy food access, including working with Black and Brown local urban farmers, and operating a collaborative growing space called the North County Agricultural Education Center in Pine Lawn, Missouri. Following the closing of multiple Shop ‘n Saves in North County that provided affordable, full-service grocery store locations to the community, the organization began to coordinate efforts to open a community-owned grocery store.
The interconnectedness between economic development, racial equity, health, and food access was evident to Williams, who witnessed years of disinvestment in North County and its effects on the health of her community firsthand.
“I grew up in the region when we had grocery stores, doctors’ offices, and dentists,” said Williams. “Over the years, as people left the area, whether through white flight or middle-class flight, eventually, those stores shuttered, and there was nothing good to replace them. What came about was a lot of fast-food places and junk food stores and the decline in access to fresh produce.” As residents left and businesses shuttered in North County, commercial and residential vacancy only contributed to declining tax revenue and decreased investment in the community. “Over the past few years, we began to see our health decline, which was exacerbated during the pandemic. We saw Black people–we were dying at much higher rates than white people.”
Williams envisioned the idea of a local grocery store–a new endeavor for the organization–that sold affordable, healthy fresh food as a step towards addressing historic disparities and food injustice. Moving forward with this vision for the People’s Harvest Community Grocery Store included building relationships with key partners, gathering initial community input on their vision and expectations for a new store. A Red Circle led early-stage project development by completing a feasibility study and business plan, and launching a fundraising campaign. In 2022, A Red Circle received a $100k Healthy Food Financing Initiative grant to support the development of the new store. HFFI funding has enabled meaningful community engagement—creating interest, excitement, and a sense of ownership and support among neighborhood residents and local farmers. Additional funding that will allow A Red Circle to complete the project has come from other local grants, debt, and donations. With movements towards racial equity gaining attention among organizations nationally, Williams emphasized the importance that funders and other external organizations who are coming in as outsiders to participate in or support community development work be mindful of their engagement and efforts, and consider how they are responding to the actual needs of the community.
A Red Circle sees the development of the grocery store as not just a food access point but the return of essential economic assets to the community, ending the cycle of vacant property, and employment losses. Williams explains, “One thing that good food brings is money. People want to be in spaces where there is good food, where there are grocery stores, restaurants, farmers markets. If you are in a neighborhood that doesn’t have a good store, you will have to drive into another region and feed their tax space by providing your tax dollars even though your house is in a different neighborhood.”