In some Atlanta neighborhoods (probably more than you’d think), it can take more than three hours to get to fresh, healthy food. In these food deserts, kids get “dinner” from passing ice cream trucks and adults settle for fast food or convenience store snacks after a long day at work. Jeff and Katie Delp are a husband and wife team working to put a food oasis in the community where they’ve lived for 13 years. For this week’s Friday Five, we talked to Jeff about the soon-to-open Carver Neighborhood Market and how it will change food accessibility in South Atlanta.
Where is the nearest source of fresh food now?
It’s about three and a half miles away — about a three-hour round trip on MARTA. You’ve got to go bus to train to bus, and you’ve got to do that twice. You could probably walk it faster. MARTA is not smarta in this case. We’re about two miles from Grant Park, and they have the Grant Park Farmer’s Market, but that’s only one day. When I moved to Atlanta in 2001, the closest Target to where I lived was Buckhead — I live right by Turner Field — so I mean, you didn’t have retail options and that’s changed mostly now. People have access to cheap and affordable clothes and household goods but the food side has not changed.
Did the idea just come from your own personal experience, or community demand?
My wife and I have lived in the neighborhood for 13 years. I have a four-block walk to the store. We know, even with a car, how inconvenient it is. I’ve literally seen kids get dinner from the ice cream truck at night. When you talk to people in the community and you ask them about concerns, it’s schools, crime, and access to food. Those are the top three things people talk about. Crime’s actually not that bad, but schools are and so is access to food.
The storefront that we currently operate is a thrift store, coffee shop, and bike shop. The thrift store has been there for about 12 years and that’s the reason we could do it so cheap — we already had the building and we already had a staff and all that in place. We could keep doing the thrift store route, but why not try to solve people’s biggest problem and that’s getting cheap and affordable healthy food? We can run a profitable grocery store that sustains itself, provides jobs, and gives people access to the food that they want.
We broke the project up in to three phases. Phase 1 is funded and will open soon. We are carving out part of the thrift store we run to sell groceries. That’s Phase 1. Then we’ll use whatever data we collect to hopefully build a case to fund Phase 2, which will involve building out the rest of the store and then eventually maybe an even bigger store. If Phase 2 moves ahead, we’d build out the rest of the space and probably get more in depth in terms of renovations — doing the floors, ceilings, and just going a little deeper.
We think this will work but we wanted to be able to prove it to funders before we went and asked for a significantly larger amount of money, so we’re doing the first phase with $50,000, which I think is pretty cheap, given what we’re doing, but the second phase would be probably a good bit more than that, so before we went and had people give us a bunch of money, we wanted to make sure we knew what we were taking about.
By the end of the year, we’ll have data to go off of and the data will drive how fast we act on the second phase. So if it’s really conclusive, we’ll act faster. If it’s somewhat inconclusive, we might spend some more time collecting data, but the idea is that in 10 months or so, we’ll know how quickly we’ll move into Phase 2. We’ll be able to go to funders and say, “Hey, here’s how Phase 1 has done.” Hopefully if we’re successful, raising the money for Phase 2 won’t be that hard, even though it’s more.
What sorts of foods do you plan to stock when you open?
We’ll with things that are harder for families to get, like produce. People say they want fresh fruits and vegetables. I’m still a little skeptical that people will buy them, but that’s what people say they want so we’ll give it a shot. This first phase will be about testing: Is what people say they want matching what they actually buy? What can we actually source at a price that we can resell? So it’ll be a lot of trial and error to start out, but we’re going to start with produce and meats, those kinds of things.
Another thing we really want to figure out is how we could do some sort of prepared foods. My personal thought on this — and hopefully our data will prove me right — is that we have a lot of single folks who don’t want to cook a meal who are now walking down to Wendy’s or walking somewhere else or eating something bad, and if we could find a way of sourcing a healthier meal that they could take home and throw in the microwave or in the oven or whatever, I think that would do really, really well, so we want to look at that. For Phase 1, we’d be looking to source that from the outside. For Phase 2, could we build a commercial kitchen? Ideally, at some point it probably would be more cost effective if we did that ourselves, also one of our missions is to create jobs in our neighborhood. There’s not food, there’s also not jobs, so if we can employ our neighbors in making whatever we can, that would further our mission.
Are you and your wife, Katie, handling this whole project alone, or do you have some help?
We are part of an organization called FCS Urban Ministries, they’ve been around for about 35 years. Organizationally, that’s who we’re connected to, and we have a task force for this particular project helping us. We have a guy who designs stores for one of the grocery chains and he’s helping us design everything and we’ve connected with a grocery store owner in Alabama who is in a very similar situation as us. We’ve got a good team together around this project.