Wirth Co-op: another oasis in Northside ‘food desert’

New grocery adapts to its community’s needs

Wirth Co-op exterior (Stephani Booker/MSR News)

 Wirth Cooperative Grocery opened this past August in a space on the first floor of the Commons at Penn, a building that sits on the corner of Penn Avenue North and Golden Valley Road in the Willard-Hay neighborhood of North Minneapolis. Its product offerings continue to evolve as it gets feedback from its “shopper community.”

Like most Twin Cities-area co-op grocery stores such as the Wedge and Seward Community Co-op, Wirth Co-op pledges to offer healthy foods that are sustainably and locally sourced. Additionally, the founders of Wirth Co-op, a group of community members from Harrison, Bryn Mawr, and Willard-Hay neighborhoods, wanted to address what they saw as a “food desert” in North Minneapolis.

“To me personally, I don’t see it as a food desert because there’s tons of food around here,” Wirth Co-op General Manager Winston Bell says, “but I see it as a food desert as far as [a lack of] good food options. The Twin Cities is kind of booming right now; it’s getting bigger. [The co-op founders] figured it’s time to have better food access here on the North Side.”

Providing an oasis in the North Minneapolis food desert that acknowledges the differences between having a grocery store in this area and ones located in Seward or Whittier such as Seward Co-op and the Wedge, respectively, is an essential part of Wirth Co-op’s mission.

“We started out with a product selection that was very mixed in terms of conventional products, organic and natural,” Assistant Manager Snow Aukema says, “and then we waited to hear what the community said. Our co-op shopper community, our neighborhood shopper community — basically anyone who came through the door that had some feedback as far as what we’re offering — we’re responding to that.”

Winston Bell, Gen. Mgr. (Courtesy of Wirth Cooperative)

However, does giving the local shoppers what they want include, for example, selling local kids Hot Cheetos and Takis? “It happened. We had kids coming in [asking], ‘Where are your Hot Cheetos and Takis?’ and things like that,” Aukema says with a laugh.

“We [believe] no matter what age you are, if you’re a customer, you’re a customer. So we did bring in some Cheetos, and we kind of had to think about was that the right decision to make. We probably won’t be carrying them in the future because there are a lot of healthy snacks out there, and a lot of our mission is to bring healthy food to the community.”

“We’re not going to judge what’s healthy or not,” Aukema continues, “but there are lot of places you can buy Cheetos. There aren’t a lot of places you can buy a local SweeTango apple.” SweeTango is an apple variety developed by the University of Minnesota.

“The other day, one of our employees bought some children some of those apples. Their eyes lit up; they had never tried a SweeTango apple from Minnesota. We’re going to develop programs that introduce things that we know kids will like no matter where they’re coming from.”

Though it took a decade of organizing, fundraising and other work to make Wirth Co-op a reality, the grocery store is still in its infancy in terms of how long it’s been open and its evolving list of services and programs. Wirth Co-op recently got approved to accept Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards, so people getting benefits through programs like SNAP and MFIP are now able to use their cards to make purchases at the store.

“There are a lot of plans [for more programs] in place,” Aukema adds. “One thing that we are doing currently is a fundraiser for Wirth Bucks, which is a program that mimics the Market Bucks program where EBT [card users] and other eligible customers can increase their fresh food purchases.

“So if you go to the farmers’ market with [an] EBT [card] and you want to use your Market Buck coupons, you get to double your produce purchases. We’re doing a fundraiser right now for that program for this store.”

Wirth Co-op is not only dedicated to serving the needs and wants of North Minneapolis, but also to being part of the neighborhood as reflected in its staff and leadership. Most of the staff and many of the co-op’s board members are people of color. Plus, most of the co-op staff lives in North Minneapolis, as does most of its 700-800 members who pay a one-time $100 fee in exchange for an ownership share in the cooperative and other benefits.

The membership fee is payable in installments, and people who qualify for SNAP, MFIP and/or other assistance programs can pay $15 toward the fee with the rest payable with future co-op equity patronage refunds, a benefit members will receive whenever the co-op becomes profitable. “We want to be accessible for people to join,” Aukema explains.

Unlike what many people mistakenly believe about co-ops, you do not have to be a member to shop at Wirth Co-op. “What sustains us is customers and community interest and involvement. While membership is really important to develop that base of supporters, it takes everybody supporting the store for us thrive.”

(Facebook/Wirth Cooperative)

Many people also mistakenly believe that low-income or African American communities such as those in North Minneapolis don’t care about healthy food or nutrition. “I think a growing trend among all populations and communities is a healthier direction of eating,” Aukema says.

“I know there’s a lot of radio shows, on KMOJ for example, about healthy eating. So I think the word’s getting out there.

“I think our real challenge is how do we offer natural foods, whole foods, fresh produce, locally raised meat and dairy at affordable prices,” Aukema emphasizes. “I think ultimately given the budgetary allowances and opportunity and exposure, who wouldn’t want the best-tasting, the closest-to-home and the freshest food?”

 

Wirth Cooperative Grocery is located at 1835 Penn Avenue North, Minneapolis. For more information, call 612-200-9621or go to https://wirth.coop.

 

Stephani Maari Booker welcomes reader responses to rbooker@hotmail.com.

 

 

Updated 9/27/2017 – A previous version of this story misidentified Winston Bell, Gen. Mgr. The error has been corrected.