Minneapolis’ North Market is billed as a full-service grocery store and wellness center, launched in 2017 by Pillsbury United Communities (PUC), a 140-year-old social service organization. North Minneapolis, where the store is located, sees a large disparity in the health of its residents and traditional aid such as SNAP wasn’t working to eliminate it. The community said they needed a full-service grocery store.
“The concept for North Market emerged from a conversation about food access in North Minneapolis. The community, a federally designated promise zone, was a food desert with just one supermarket serving its 67,000 residents. Through our discovery process, it quickly became evident that access to more nutritious food alone would not be enough to address the health problems plaguing this community,” said Kim Pepper, PUC’s chief engagement officer.
Leaders at PUC built “a gathering place for greater goodness.” The store offers not only healthy, nutritional food, but also a health center operated by North Memorial Health System and nutritionists who help educate customers on making healthy choices as well as fun community activities such as pumpkin carving for kids.
PUC knew North Market had to be more than just a grocery store as nearly 40% of residents of North Minneapolis are African American and mortality rates for African American Minnesotans are up to 3.5 times higher than for other racial and ethnic groups. The African American death rate from diabetes is almost two times the rate of white Minnesotans and over 50% of the African Americans who die from heart disease are under the age of 65 compared to only 15% of whites. While these types of chronic diseases are manageable and sometimes even preventable, the community lacked access to the basic health and wellness support needed to control these diseases.
The services are free, Pepper noted, and the wellness coordinator can help with health assessments and make referrals and schedule appointments as well as give grocery tours to help customers find the foods they need to help maintain their health.
Part of the mission of North Market is to provide healthy food options at affordable prices. That can be challenging as the focus is on organic foods, which are inherently more expensive. To help alleviate the cost to the consumer, North Market participates in the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive program and last summer—the latest time frame with available data—shoppers saw more than $27,000 in savings, and the store had a 34% increase in fresh produce sales, Pepper said. “So it really validated what we had learned through our research that it's not that there's a population that doesn't want to eat and feed their families,” she added.
The store also has half-price produce every Wednesday. “It draws a crowd,” Pepper said. “The community knows [and] they stock up. They really appreciate that.”
Another investment North Market has made for fresh, affordable and sustainable food is partnering with Freight Farms hydroponic vertical container farm. The benefits of the container farm are many.
North Market can produce its own line of crops for shoppers with consistency all year, regardless of Minneapolis’ weather or changing climate conditions, and by being grown on-site, produce stays fresh for far longer, reducing food waste for both North Market and consumers. The farm’s integrated internet of things platform, Farmhand, enables complete traceability of crops from seed to harvest, especially important during a time when mass-market produce recalls are becoming more frequent.
“The community loves it,” Pepper said. “We have a very active Facebook page and engagement and the community has responded really well.”
Farming and Learning
The PUC team is developing STEM programming as part of its commitment to a youth training program with paid apprenticeships across its urban agriculture programs.
In addition to the larger scale education efforts, the container farm also provides customers the opportunity to learn more about where their food comes from. By making a direct connection with their food, customers can interact with North Market’s on-site farmer Micah Helle, who is officially known as a hydroponic specialist at PUC.
North Market also plans to use the farm as the vehicle for educational and skilled training programs once it is safe to do so after the pandemic.
Feeding Larger Community
With its location right at the store, the container farm eliminates transportation costs associated with produce, which brings down the prices for the customer. In addition, the farm snaps into North Market’s closed-loop food system, which includes Full Cycle bike courier distribution between the market, meal programs and Southside gardens.
Full Cycle is a community bicycle shop/repair center and PUC affiliate that offers a six-month internship for homeless youth to learn bike mechanic skills. As of July, the interns, who also are bike couriers, pick up freshly harvested food from PUC’s Southside gardens and deliver them to North Market to be sold. Completing the cycle, they also pick up surplus food and bring it back to the Southside to be distributed in community delivery meal programs. Any remaining food is composted back at the Southside gardens.
“They get support to move out of their homeless situation with paid internships,” Pepper said. “We're employing young people in the community that don't have as many opportunities as they should to be part of this system.
While 2020 is unique in that the pandemic has caused large scale unemployment, North Market has long been focused on finding ways to get its community to work that include putting youth to work as farmhands in its gardens.
Reflecting the Larger Community
North Market prides itself on being a Black-run/Black-managed store, Pepper said. “As part of our model for launching the store, we wanted to both speed the bodies of the community as well as service and economic drivers. So we very intentionally hire folks from the community,” she said. Of the 11 full-time and 10 part-time staffers, all but one live in the neighborhood.