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Engagement, awareness key to food desert bodega’s success

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — Nicole Green sees food insecurity in her customers’ lives every day.

There’s the elderly woman who lives across the street and comes to pick up fresh eggs every week because she doesn’t have a car. There’s the woman who has her groceries delivered every week.

“Most of the people that come, come from close by. They walk, they catch the bus,” she said. “I’d say at least half are walkers.”

Green is the manager at Cleo’s Bodega, a small grocery store owned and operated by Flanner House. It opened at the corner of 24th Street and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Street in 2019. She said the store is the only place for 10 or 15 miles in any direction where customers can buy fresh produce.

Much of the area to the north and west of IU Health Methodist Hospital is marked as a food desert in the USDA’s Food Atlas. The USDA defines a food desert as any census tract in which at least 100 households are located at least half a mile from the nearest grocery store and lack vehicle access, or in which at least 500 people or 33 percent of the population live more than 20 miles from the nearest supermarket, regardless of vehicle availability.

Plans announced for the IU Health District earlier this year include a food production facility located in the area to serve at-risk people and neighborhoods. Mixed-use development that could host small grocery stores factors in as well. Green and Flanner House CEO Brandon Cosby said opening a grocery store is not as easy as it sounds. Grocery store profit margins are small, especially if a store is going to sell fresh produce at a price point people in low-income neighborhoods can afford, and startup costs are high. They said Cleo’s Bodega can support itself now but it needed a community development block grant to help get off the ground. Moreover, any new stores need to consistently market themselves to the community.

“People have the habits and the routines of shopping where they shop,” Cosby said. “Just because a new retail outlet opens up that’s closer and may even be as financially competitive or even more affordable, habits of shoppers are very difficult to interrupt.”

Green said people who live nearby still tell her they had no idea the store existed. She said she’s expanding the store’s use of direct mail advertising to reach the community. She’s also passing out ads in neighborhoods and churches.

Perhaps most importantly, Cosby said any effort to bring a grocery store to a food desert needs the full involvement of the people who live there.

“If you haven’t done any of the real, authentic engagement to really take into consideration the hopes, the dreams, the needs, and the desires and aspirations of the residents, that’s not something you’re doing for the community, that’s something you’re doing to the community,” he said.