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A New Food Retailer, People’s Harvest Community Grocery Store, to Expand Healthy Food Access in North County 

View more stories from our 2022 Annual Report

Erica Williams founded A Red Circle, a North St. Louis County, Missouri-based nonprofit, in 2017. A Red Circle promotes community betterment in North County through a racial equity lens. In 2022, the organization was awarded a Healthy Food Financing Initiative (HFFI) grant to support the development of its first grocery store project—a community-owned grocery store named People’s Harvest, which will include access to affordable groceries, cold storage space for Black farmers, a community learning space, and more.

A Red Circle—Because We All Bleed Red 

When Erica Williams decided to take on economic development in pursuit of the well-being of her community, it was a significant career change from her previous profession as a paralegal. She was inspired to create her organization, A Red Circle, following the murder of Michael Brown by a police officer in a suburb of St. Louis. “The protests and the unrest happened very close to my home, and that caused me to begin to look and see what I was doing in terms of investing in my community and the peace of health of my community,” Williams explains. “I realized that North County really needed and deserved more investment in terms of financing and resources, and so my research ended up landing us in the healthy food space.”  

Williams wanted the name of her organization to highlight the interconnected systems needed for a community to thrive. “A lot of these issues that we are addressing right now within North County and within the country all stem from racism, but we all bleed red…when you think about the shape that interconnections can make, such as the Social Determinants of Health… it’s a circle,” Williams emphasizes. 

 
 

A lot of these issues that we are addressing right now within North County and within the country all stem from racism, but we all bleed red…when you think about the shape that interconnections can make, such as the Social Determinants of Health… it’s a circle.

A New Endeavor 

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.”  

 

Looking Ahead to a Profitable, Successful and Sustainable Store 

Selecting and acquiring a site for the new store was essential in developing this community grocery project. Williams identified a vacant building for sale with a deep history that illustrated the historic racist policies that plagued the United States’ past. The building served as a store, drug store, and most recently, a church, but has been  vacant since the early 1990s. “The building itself was built in the 1950s–at the time, it was segregated, so not only could we not shop at the store there, but we couldn’t even try to own it… So not only are we building the store, but we are also breathing life into a building that will allow us to do a lot more in the community,” said Williams.  

With support from Reinvestment Fund’s HFFI grant and other financing, A Red Circle closed on the property in March 2023 and will soon move forward with renovations. In addition to the community grocery, the building will be a multi-use development that will include A Red Circle’s new office headquarters, a community learning space, healthcare resources, and a commercial kitchen. A Red Circle is also developing relationships with vendors, farmers, and local partners that will stock the store with healthy foods, including staple groceries and produce.  

As the development of the store moves forward, A Red Circle continues to rely on a solid team and partners willing to provide support and work through challenges. Historically, Black entrepreneurs and nonprofit leaders have faced mistrust from key players and funders. As a Black nonprofit leader, Williams highlights the difficulty she has experienced obtaining financing for this development due to the legacy of discriminatory policies. Getting people to realize the vision early on has also often been challenging while showing patience and trust in the process, even when exact details are only sometimes clear. Williams says, “We want this store to be profitable, successful, and sustainable so we can show the naysayers we got this.”    

People’s Harvest Community Grocery Store expects to open in Summer 2025. Still, Williams envisions the store as only a starting point for the organization’s economic development efforts through a racial equity lens. Addressing limited food access through investments in grocery stores is an essential solution that may improve community health outcomes and create economic development opportunities, while simultaneously strengthening local food systems. When the store opens, A Red Circle hopes to balance affordability for consumers while also supporting the economic prosperity of local, Black, and urban food systems.   

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