How Nonprofit Grocery Stores Work

These stores provide a service where major chains don’t.

With companies like Amazon taking the grocery shopping experience to high-tech heights, it can be easy to assume grocery stores are available and readily accessible to all, but that's not always the case. In many neighborhoods throughout the country, food deserts lack centrally located grocery stores, and the only options available might be far from walking distance or public transit. That's where nonprofit grocery stores become crucial.

What’s a food desert?

Unfortunately, the term "food desert" has become well known as the issue grows more widespread. The United States Department of Agriculture uses a number of criteria to define a food desert.

One of the most notable criteria is that at least 33% of the population of an urban area lives more than a mile from the nearest large grocery store. In rural areas, a food desert is defined by 33% of the population living more than 10 miles from the nearest large grocery store. NPR reports, based on USDA data, that there are 76 counties throughout the U.S. that lack any grocery store. These food deserts often exist in low-income areas where transportation to the nearest store that carries nutritious, affordable food is also a struggle. Nonprofit grocery stores, then, seek to fill in the gaps.

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What’s a nonprofit grocery store?

These stores should not be confused with food pantries, which of course are also crucial to those in need of food aid at no cost. Nonprofit grocery stores function similarly in providing for people experiencing food insecurity, but there are distinct differences in how they arise and how they operate.

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Where most major supermarkets have a massive facility around 43,000 square feet, many nonprofit stores are smaller than 7,000 square feet. The limited space means inventory has to be tailored to the surrounding community, and it has to be sold at more affordable prices than major chains to make it worthwhile to the residents in need of nutritional food options.

To achieve this, some find clever ways to reduce operating costs. Jubilee Food Market, a nonprofit grocery store owned by Mission Waco in Texas, grows its own produce in a greenhouse, which cuts costs for the store and allows it to provide community members with fresh food. In contrast, larger chain stores like Walmart or Kroger drive prices down by relying on a larger inventory of products.

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There are usually three different operational models that nonprofit grocery stores follow, Nonprofit Quarterly explains. Here's a quick rundown:

  • Model 1: Similar to how Costco or Sam's Club operate, the store's baseline membership dues keep things running, both in terms of stocking the groceries and paying employees.
  • Model 2: A combination of donations from food banks, discounts from distributors and the power company, and leveraging SNAP benefits to offer free or discount items to SNAP recipients. These strategies are meant to bring in a wider range of customers to keep the store running.
  • Model 3: The majority of nonprofit grocery stores use this model, which relies on a combination of volunteers, donations, grants, and connections to the community in order to stay afloat. (This can actually be applied to the previous two models as well.)
  • Leaning on the community you serve to help you survive is a difficult task, but at the same time, nonprofit grocery stores provide a service to residents that major chain stores do not. Functioning as a capitalist business, it makes sense that traditional grocery stores would select locations not only in areas that require car transport (so as to have a nice big parking lot) but also in areas with higher income (so as to cater to the most spendy customers). However, nonprofit grocery stores are more like a small business: their footprint is limited, but the support for and from the community in which they operate is, in the best cases, immeasurable.

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