South East Market looks to 2022

Grants, funding and partnerships will help boost organization’s mission of food justice next year.
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The city of Grand Rapids approved a community garden behind the MLK Park lodge, where children in the Freedom School learned to grow and harvest their own food. Courtesy Tori Smith

Alita Kelly and Khara DeWit have big plans for their market and related food justice initiatives in 2022.

The co-founders of the South East Market are concluding their first calendar year of operations this month and looking back on a year of “beautiful things” that came about, many of which they said will help advance the grocery store’s mission of increasing food justice on Grand Rapids’ southeast side, specifically in the 49507 ZIP code.

Alita Kelly and Khara DeWit. Courtesy Tori Smith

After a GoFundMe campaign that raised the South East Market’s startup capital, the store opened on Jan. 18, 2021, at 1220 Kalamazoo Ave. SE in Grand Rapids.

Via a business model that, along with regular in-store shopping, offers customers the opportunity to donate funds to bring down the price of goods in the store, as well as buy produce subscriptions or gift them to others, the market offers healthy and culturally appropriate food sourced from diverse growers and vendors to the community through a sustainable and equitable lens.

In an email to supporters on Giving Tuesday last month, the co-founders said in 2021, the market:

  • Worked with over 20 local farms
  • Worked with over 30 priority vendors, i.e., Black, Indigenous, people of color (BIPOC) and/or women-led companies
  • Delivered over 1,300 orders of free groceries
  • Made over 2,000 produce subscription bundles
  • Employed 11 individuals
  • Diverted over 2,000 pounds of food waste to compost
  • Served over 100 children in its enrichment programming, the Freedom School
  • Built a community garden

“All the ways we’ve felt love and shared love with our neighbors, farmers, vendors and customers can’t fit in a statistic to understand the reach of the store,” Kelly and DeWit said in the email, adding in 2021 they were able to “increase access to healthy food for our neighbors, increase support for BIPOC/women, increase visibility and support for local farms and businesses, divert food waste, challenge toxic charity, facilitate positive change in our local food ecosystem, and explore new models for land reparations and urban agriculture.”

Kelly started the Freedom School in her home, and after enrollment outgrew that space, she partnered with Duke Turley Jr., of Dreams Take Work, to incorporate it into his regular summer day camp programming at the Martin Luther King Park lodge. His program is supported by the Grand Rapids Parks and Recreation Department.

“(Turley) is a really inspirational, motivational young Black man from this neighborhood who, despite not having any children, has a bleeding heart for the kids,” Kelly said. “They all look up to him, and he has organized this whole camp that he has been doing for a few years at MLK Park. I found out about him just by sending my daughter to the camp, and so we connected that way.”

The goal of the South East Market’s Freedom School is to instill holistic healthy habits in children. It includes education about social movements past and present; mindfulness and kemetic yoga practice taught by Kayla Morgan, of Resilient Roots Yoga; and environmental science, including how to grow food, why it’s important to eat healthy and education about the food system.

Kelly received approval from the city of Grand Rapids to build a community garden behind the MLK Park lodge, where children in the Freedom School learned to grow and harvest their own food. The 2021 pilot included six raised beds, with more to be added in 2022. The Freedom School continued into the fall as part of the Baxter Community Center afterschool program.

Also in 2021, the market landed, in tandem with the West Michigan Environmental Action Council (WMEAC), an approximately $127,000 U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) planning grant to support innovation in urban agriculture, which will help South East Market grow the Freedom School next year and build out a business plan for an urban farm incubator to develop growers of color.

“We see the market’s success hinging on the ability to work with diverse growers, and that’s something that’s really hard to come by on the west side of the state,” Kelly said. “The goal with Freedom School and this farm project is to increase access for people in urban areas, specifically people of color, to give them the opportunity to engage with some of these concepts around growing and food justice or food sovereignty.”

The grant will help WMEAC and South East Market explore the possibility of food forests and other avenues to support a healthy climate, while also tackling the inequities in Grand Rapids “around how communities of color engage with the environment,” Kelly said.

She said the University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability selected the South East Market as the subject of one of its master’s degree-level research projects, which means four or five U of M students will help the market build the urban agriculture plan funded by the USDA grant.

In April, the South East Market won the $5,000 grand prize at the Michigan Good Food Fund Pitch Competition. At the end of September, the market won $20,000 at Start Garden’s Demo Day, a prize which, along with the funding, includes a year of free access to Start Garden’s physical space.

The pitch funding will help support the South East Market’s mission going forward — including initiatives like the Thanksgiving Giveback and the Feel Good Fridge program at the Boys & Girls Club of Grand Rapids — and it also will aid the business in securing a larger location so it can hire more community members, expand its stock and drive down prices.

“One of the issues we have as a small store is tapping into economies of scale, so more space will translate to an all-around better experience for our neighbors,” Kelly said.

In the new space, the market also will be able to add a commercial kitchen that will serve as an incubator for other food entrepreneurs and where South East Market employees will make and sell prepared foods and teach nutrition and cooking classes to neighbors.

Kelly said one of the biggest lessons she and DeWit learned in 2021 is, “You can’t do it all.”

“There are so many talented people on our team and in our community, and just leaning into working with people and letting their strengths shine has been really good for us — good for our relationship-building, but also good for our business,” she said.

For example, in 2022, the market will hire a dietitian intern who will help assemble the produce subscription bundles, and it will continue with the partnerships mentioned above.

Kelly said she is proud of the way the South East Market has been able to mobilize community support through its produce subscription and Pay It Forward program, to ensure neighbors experiencing food insecurity have access to high-quality food, rather than the food that others gave away because they didn’t want it.

As women of color, Kelly and DeWit said access to capital remains the market’s biggest hurdle. The produce subscriptions — available at various pricing points for personal use or as a gift to another — are a sustaining part of the store’s revenue, and Kelly hopes everyone will consider subscribing.

“I think as people see us receive these grants and these awards and things, they think that they can sort of opt out, but that’s hurtful to us because it requires everybody’s participation in continuing to elevate the store,” Kelly said. “That is the only way we’re going to continue to drive our prices down for our neighbors.

“If people in our community who want to see this work continue are intentional about shifting some of their purchasing to South East Market, then we are going to be able to go the distance.”

More information about the market and its programs and offerings is at southeastmarketgr.com.

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