Locals gather to celebrate grand opening of equitable community market in China Grove

Published 12:05 am Sunday, March 28, 2021

By Natalie Anderson
natalie.anderson@salisburypost.com

CHINA GROVE — Community members, the Rowan County United Way and Main Street Marketplace and Meeting Place representatives on Saturday celebrated the grand opening of its equitable community market.

In November, the Main Street Marketplace and Meeting Place — two outreach programs from Main Street Mission — began growing thousands of plants in a 400-square-foot hydroponic garden. The project allows produce to be grown on site and transferred to the market cooler in a matter of minutes. Main Street Marketplace, located at 308 South Main St. in China Grove, allows families to purchase fresh, healthy foods based on their family size and income level using a “sliding scale” tier system. A pilot of the “community marketplace model” using the tiered system began in December.

The most popular plants include red and green butter lettuce, but the garden also includes microgreens and herbs. Different stages of the growing process can be viewed in the garden within the warehouse at the market. It takes anywhere from 41 to 45 days from seed to harvest, and the garden uses 90% less water than traditional agriculture practices. The hydroponic garden allows for year-round production.

Lettuce travels a long way to get to you, said Main Street Marketplace Executive Director Hope Oliphant. “And so this is going straight from our garden to the cooler. So it doesn’t lose any nutritional value, and it has a four-to-five week shelf life,”  she said.

Oliphant said profits go back into managing the market, which allows the organization to continue improving its self-sustainability.

Produce, grass-fed beef, chicken, locally sourced honey, snacks and other products can all be purchased when visiting the marketplace.

When a customer visits the market for the first time, he or she receive a card that links to his or her phone number and includes a designated tier, which is determined using the honor system. Brianna Caraccio, the market’s manager, said the market began with a membership-model before deciding a tiered system would serve the community better and allow those with higher levels of income to supplement the lower tiers so that the market doesn’t lose money with an across-the-board membership system.

“What we realized is that ultimately we have people coming in from different income brackets,” Caraccio said. “We have people in middle class and we have people in a lower income bracket that are all shopping.”

To date, the market has seen a “pretty even amount of people in each tier,” she added.

The green, or bottom, tier charges up to 40% below wholesale price for all items. The yellow, middle tier sits between wholesale and retail price. The blue tier charges the retail price or more.

For example, a two-person family that makes at or below $17,420 per year would qualify for the green tier, while a two-person family making up to $38,604 would qualify for the middle tier.

These prices allow families to save up to 55% when shopping in the green tier and up to 25% in the yellow tier compared to the average costs at other grocery stores.

Oliphant said the market began as a free food bank, but staff learned over time that there are many “living in the gap” by not meeting all the federal poverty guidelines but also not making a living wage. Main Street Marketplace and Meeting Place reports that as of 2020, “living in the gap” results in 12.4% of households having food insecurities, with an average income gap of $17.48 from minimum wage to living wage.

After hosting a mock shopping event with students in the Main Street Getting Ahead Program, Oliphant learned that produce and meat were items students wanted to purchase because other items such as peanut butter and beans can be purchased at a grocery store with food stamps. Not being able to afford fresh meat and produce can result in the purchase of processed foods.

Ultimately, this allows those with EBT food stamps to stretch their budget and “make it go further,” Oliphant said.

“Really the graduates of our Getting Ahead Program have shaped everything that we’re doing here,” she said. “So they kind of drive what the real need is. We listen to those we seek to serve and partnered with to create this model.”

United Way Executive Director Jenny Lee said the Main Street Mission program applied for funding in 2019 and was ultimately awarded with a $150,000 grant for the hydroponic garden initiative and $11,800 for the Getting Ahead program. Lee said what was most attractive, and what United Way often looks for, is “sustainability.” She added the Getting Ahead program works well because it teaches people how to foster self-sustainability and then allows graduates of the program to have access to entrepreneurship opportunities.

“This is one of the projects I’m personally most proud of,” Lee said. “Overall, it stimulates the entire economy for Rowan County.”

Lee credited the market with cultivating an “inviting atmosphere” that can be inclusive to many more people as it doesn’t have the traditional feel of a social service program. Additionally, its charity model allows the business to make a profit “even in the nonprofit world.”

Among those at the grand opening was Morgan Bernstein of Concord, who took a class in the Getting Ahead Program in 2019 and became a facilitator for a course after falling in love with the experience. She thought Saturday’s event was “fantastic,” and commended the market for utilizing a tier system for purchases.

“This is such an important resource for the community,” Bernstein said.

The marketplace also allows graduates of the Getting Ahead Program and local entrepreneurs to have visibility in the community by selling their products at the market.

Kim Rose is a graduate of the Getting Ahead Program and now sells handcrafted copper jewelry at the market with her business “Kopper Rose.” She said the practice began as something she did around Christmas until she was told to start selling the jewelry to make a profit. Since then, “it’s been a blessing,” Rose said.

She added that the program taught her a lot about budgeting and how to prosper.

Onyca Perry, another graduate of the program, was unable to attend the grand opening, but all-natural cleaning products from her startup “Boho Momma” could be found inside the market.

Currently, five of the 10 staff members at the market are graduates of the program, Oliphant said.

Also at the grand opening was Kristina Cook, a local State Farm insurance agent. Cook said anyone obtaining quotes for home, auto, life, hospital income or disability income can mention “Main Street Marketplace and Meeting Place,” and State Farm will donate $10 to the organization during the month of April. No purchase is necessary to participate in this “Quotes for Good” initiative.