FLINT, Mich.—On a sunny day on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive this weekend, a steady stream of people drove up to the Flint fire station to get free water. Neighbors carried cases of bottled water for each other, while other volunteers drove distributing to the elderly.
Just a few blocks down the street, there was another more subtle example of community members here helping their neighbors in crisis: a shiny new grocery store, one of the first to open in downtown Flint in years.
Flint natives Erin Caudell and Franklin Pleasant opened The Local Grocer in December after raising more than $30,000 on Kickstarter. They focus on stocking produce grown almost exclusively in Michigan.
“We believe that the Flint community deserves a grocery store that supports people making healthier food choices and supports their local economy,” Caudell told me.
Having healthier food choices is more important for Flint now than ever before: nutrition can have a big impact on lead exposure. Doctors recommend diets with plenty of calcium, iron, and vitamin C to limit the effects of lead poisoning—all of which are found in fruits and vegetables. But many residents have limited access to those kinds of food because of the scarcity of grocery stores here, in a town with a 40% poverty rate.
A number of the national news outlets that have converged on Flint over the past couple of weeks—CNN, The Washington Post, Mother Jones, The Miami Herald—have reported that there isn’t a single grocery store in the city. “There’s not a full-scale grocery store anywhere in sight,” CNN’s telegenic doctor Sanjay Gupta said in one recent broadcast as he drove down a Flint street.
That factoid was wrong even before The Local Grocer opened last month. There’s a Kroger’s—a midwest supermarket chain—just inside city limits, with several others in nearby towns. (The company donated 25,000 cases of bottled water to the city.) Another local chain, Fresh Choice, also has a location. A small organic store called The Grainery is also located near downtown. A farmers' market, which has won national recognition for its produce and prepared food, is held three times a week year-round.
But that’s not to say access to healthy food isn’t a problem in Flint. Several grocery stores have closed in the past two years, and people who don’t have a car have an especially hard time getting to most of the supermarkets that are left.
"When the major chains leave a city like they have Flint, a person in need… has less access to produce," said William Kerr, the president of the city's food bank. "You need the grocery stores inside the city because transportation is difficult here."
That's where The Local Grocer comes in. It’s located in a 7,500-foot former grocery store that shut down in 2011, just north of downtown. There’s a bus stop right outside, served by three major bus lines. Shoppers can pick up a free book of recipes designed to fight lead poisoning. The store also will accept EBT and other low income food programs once it gets approved, and the owners plan to have produce choices at "different price points" to ensure less affluent residents can shop there.
And, of course, they’ve installed a store-wide water filtration system so shoppers don’t have to worry about lead.
Caudell and Pleasant started off in 2012 by digging a vegetable garden in the front yard of their Flint home. "All the neighborhood kids were like, 'Are you going to put in a swimming pool?'" Caudell said. Instead, they filled the yard with carrots and kale, and started selling to neighbors.
They later opened a farm just north of the city, launching a popular produce stand in the farmers' market. A third of their produce comes from their own farm, and they’ve partnered with other farmers to sell vegetables from around the state. Almost everything on the store's shelves was grown or produced in Michigan—with a few understandable exceptions, such as citrus fruit. "You're not going to see many bananas in a local grocery store here," Pleasant said.
In the back, there’s a kitchen that serves prepared food, like hearty beef stew and a variety of fruit juices. A seating area has mismatched chairs and silverware, including an old school desk, with big windows looking out on the street.
Caudell and Pleasant like answering shoppers' questions about the food they sell and hunting down new goods from small Michigan farms. They post their finds on the store's Facebook page as they go on the shelves: potatoes from Grand Blanc, salsa from Lansing, kombucha from Grand Rapids.
When you hear buzzwords like local and organic, you might think it’s a store that's just for the city's better-off. But the owners say that won’t be the case.
"Our intention is to be a grocery store for the community," Pleasant said. "We want to be a vital part of this neighborhood."
Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.