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Finding sustenance in the food desert

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Finding sustenance in the food desert
"It takes driven community leaders to create the solutions necessary to tackle food security. As members of this community, we have to build it.”
Shannon Dobbs, Co-Founder, On Common Ground

How can you eat nutritious, affordable meals when the nearest grocery store is two miles away and you don’t have a car? That is the question that ate away at Shannon Dobbs during the 11 years he and wife Michelle owned a bar in downtown Reno.

As members of the downtown community, they watched friends and acquaintances who were downtown residents suffer without access to fresh, nutritious food — growing ill, getting chronic diseases and dying too young.

Dobbs figured the solution was to get a grocery store to move in downtown. He talked to more than a half dozen chains, offered free rent in a building he and his wife owned, yet he still couldn’t convince one store to come downtown. The problem, it turned out, was profit. Grocery chains simply cannot pencil out a profit in Reno’s impoverished urban core.

The nutrition solution

So, Dobbs decided to remove the profit barrier. In 2016, non-profit grocery market On Common Ground (OCG) was born.

“Food insecurity in our community is scary,” explains Dobbs. “OCG is working to create a market-based solution that avoids negative stigma and empowers families to make healthy food decisions through their purchases and learn how to use healthy whole foods, something we all need to do more of, regardless of our income bracket.”

It’s not hard to see why so many living downtown struggle with food security. With the exception of the Great Basin Food Co-op and the Urban Market, the only stores selling “food” are convenience stores, hawking highly processed junk food, sugary beverages and alcohol. But prices at the Co-op and Urban Market tend to be out of reach for the majority of downtown residents who live below the poverty line. In fact, 13.7 percent of Washoe county residents report being unsure where there next meal is coming from, including 21.6 percent of our children.

It starts with education

OCG is focused on doing more than creating access to affordable groceries. They are working to educate the community about nutrition and health and provide resources to help residents live better. In 2019, they began offering free nutrition and cooking classes at locations around town. These classes, as well as free fitness classes, are funded by SNAP education grants and are part of OCG’s broader wellness approach. One goal of the program is to show community members with limited resources how to cook at home, using simple ingredients and simple tools, helping redirect them from fast food and processed convenience foods.

“Using an Instant Pot, a motel resident can create a whole meal if they have the ingredients and the knowledge,” says Dobbs. “We’ve been able to start providing that knowledge with our cooking classes. Now it’s time to provide access to healthy, affordable ingredients.”

From education to bricks-and-mortar

To understand how a nonprofit grocery could succeed, Dobbs worked with Doug Rauch, a former Trader Joe’s president who founded the Daily Table in Dorchester, Massachusetts. As of early 2020, OCG has secured a small storefront on 4th Street near the Morris Hotel for their market. They have begun refurbishing the space with volunteer help and have had all their shelving and refrigeration and a large safe donated. Now they are actively fundraising, hoping to open by the spring of 2020.

“The small footprint works for us,” explains Dobbs. “Without brands fighting for shelf space, you can get a lot into 900 square feet. And the location is ideal, right near the downtown bus hub and University of Nevada Reno.”

Grocery stock at OCG will largely be package-free, bulk foods that are shelf-stable, along with fresh produce and healthy protein. Groceries will be sold on a sliding scale, with those at poverty level (as determined by HUD) buying at OCG’s cost and those who earn more paying competitive prices. A free tiered membership program will categorize customers by economic need and use a phone number or email at checkout, alleviating the need to carry a membership card.

As long as they can secure funding, OCG plans to continue offering nutrition education and fitness classes. Dobbs figures they need $60,000 more to get the doors to the OCG market open. They continue to apply for grants and are hoping the community will step up to help improve food access in downtown Reno.

“We believe OCG will be a win for the community,” explains Dobbs. “We will be able to bring more federal money into the community by greatly improving people's ability to use SNAP and WIC programs. It all comes down to access, and the market will provide that.

Access to nutritious food has community-wide impact

While food security and access to nutritious food may seem like individual challenges, in fact they are community issues. When residents are poorly nourished, they grow ill, and community health care costs soar. And when grocery stores are built in urban centers, property values rise, area economic activity increases, and safety and neighborhood walkability improve. 

“Our research shows, it takes driven community leaders to create the solutions necessary to tackle food security,” says Dobbs. “For-profit retail markets cannot solve this problem, because it simply isn’t profitable for them. As members of this community, we have to build it.”

How to support On Common Ground:

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