On Binghamton’s North Side, community members seek support for food co-op


When the last full-service grocery store on Binghamton’s North Side closed in 1996, community members thought it would be just a short time before the city found a for-profit chain to replace the former Grand Union. Twenty-two years later, it is still difficult for the residents of the neighborhood to buy affordable or good quality fresh food, qualifying the area as a food desert.

Now, community members are taking measures to open a local grocery into their own hands.

David Currie has worked under the Binghamton Regional Sustainability Coalition since 2010 to expedite change in the area. He has taken the lead in introducing a concept that may seem out-of-the-box to may Binghamtonians: a food cooperative, or co-op.

“We all feel very strongly that it will succeed and it will succeed as a co-op,” Currie said. “The co-op structure is ‘one person, one share’ and that membership, or that share, gives you a sense of loyalty to the institution. You buy into the concept, and that means that you’ll also shop there.”

Kevin Paredes/Photography Editor David Currie has worked to build a physical Many Hands Food Co-op since around 2010.

Many Hands Food Co-op was created by Currie while he served as the executive director of the Binghamton Regional Sustainability Coalition. While the co-op has not yet been built, a community of supporters has formed around the mission of Many Hands Food Co-op, one of the coalition’s many community-based projects.

According to Feeding America, 41.2 million Americans live in food-insecure households, meaning they lack reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food. In Broome County, the food insecurity rate ranges from 14.5 percent to 17 percent. The county exceeds the national average, which estimates only 12 percent of households are food insecure across the United States.

Over the many years since the closing of the neighborhood’s last grocery store, the face of the North Side has changed significantly. Roughly 53 percent of households on the North Side are families, many of which have lived in the neighborhood for generations. But in recent years, the community population has expanded to include immigrant families moving to the Binghamton area, attracted by the low property values.

Conrad Taylor, ‘17, serves as the city councilman for the 4th District, which encompasses the North Side, and sits on the Many Hands Food Co-op steering committee. He said rallying behind positive projects like the food co-op is necessary in order for the neighborhood to move forward economically.

But, like Currie said, instituting community change is anything but a straight line. Food deserts are often indicative of other flights of capital in the area, which adds a layer of complexity to the issue.

Since food deserts tend to be in low-income neighborhoods, many symptoms of the problem arise. Without access to a supermarket, people frequently spend more money on cheap, highly processed foods, leading to increased rates of obesity, diabetes and heart disease in low-income communities and areas struggling with food insecurity.

“With poverty and food insecurity, you have a lack of accessibility, so feeding your family, which is already hard enough, becomes that much harder,” said Eamon Ross, a member of the food co-op’s steering committee and a senior majoring in political science.

While a food co-op serves as one option for the community, residents like Nick Plavae, who has lived on the North Side for six years, are happy with any accessible grocery option in the neighborhood.

“There’s nothing to eat,” Plavae said. “It would be nice if there was somewhere to fill your belly close by. It’s very frustrating.”

Cory Bremer/Design Manager

Since the close of the Grand Union, a number of projects have been proposed, but all have fallen through.

In 2009, a Save-a-Lot franchise was slated to open in the former Big Lots Plaza at 435 State St., but when another location owned by the franchiser started to decline financially, the Binghamton area development was pulled.

That same year, the North Side’s closest grocer, a Giant located at 56 Main St. on the West Side, closed after Weis Markets acquired all Giant locations.

It was then that Many Hands Food Co-op was conceived, hosting its first planning meeting in early 2010. At the same time, Lea Webb, then serving as city councilwoman for the 4th District, was working to address food insecurity in the community under the North Side Grocery Project.

According to Currie, the two projects first partnered in earnest around 2013. That spring, Many Hands Food Co-op became incorporated. Currie, Webb and a team of volunteers put together a business plan and feasibility study and presented it to the Binghamton Local Development Corporation.

In November 2013, Mayor Rich David took office, bringing along his own campaign promises to find a grocery store for the North Side. He formed a committee, which took shape as a continuation of Webb’s North Side Grocery Project, and looked for a private operator for the property at 435 State St.

All signs were optimistic when, in July 2014, two developers proposed Grocery City Market, part of a $3.5 million development called West State Street Plaza. The developers, one of which had worked on the original developments of Big Lots Plaza, planned to partially demolish and rebuild the space, which was somewhat structurally unsound after being built on a garbage dump.

The damage to the building, however, turned out to be greater than the developers originally thought, and according to city of Binghamton Deputy Mayor Jared Kraham, they were not able to work through the structural problems of the building.

The promise of a grocery store near actualization put the Many Hands Food Co-op into hibernation, Currie said, as it wouldn’t be as necessary in the neighborhood. The excitement for the project died down, and Currie and his colleagues stopped seeking out prospective funding for the project, as it couldn’t compete with a chain-operated grocery store.

Jillian Forstadt/Assistant News Editor

After new leaders took office and the partnership between the Binghamton Regional Sustainability Coalition and Webb’s office died down, rumblings from students at Binghamton University began.

Before joining the steering committee, Ross transferred to BU in fall 2016 and joined the Roosevelt Institute, part of a national network of campus think tanks. In that year’s Binghamton Blueprint, which offers local policy suggestions, students called for a food cooperative to combat food insecurity and poverty on the North Side.

Ross, who now serves as the blueprint chairman for the organization, was part of the initial subcommittee that called for a food co-op. One month after its publication, he contacted Currie. The two spoke for more than two hours over the phone, realizing they saw eye to eye on a potential solution that had lost speed.

“What I was trying to achieve with my policy proposal was the same thing his project was trying to achieve,” Ross said. “This mission and the motivation I had for it only increased the more I got to know about the nature of food insecurity in [the Binghamton area].”

Since their initial conversation, Ross and the Roosevelt Institute have partnered with Many Hands Food Co-op, bringing along a student committee of more than 20 volunteers and support from organizations such as Enactus and Students of Urban Planning. The task force meets weekly during the semester to work on different aspects of starting the food co-op, including grant applications and co-writing an updated business plan.

“Everyone has something to contribute, everyone has a strength, and I want to hear everyone’s take [on the project],” Ross said. “By expanding that, I think it makes our project stronger.”

Katherine Scott/Staff Photographer Eamon Ross, a senior majoring in political science, speaking at the Many Hands Against Hunger forum on October 10.

The project is now driven by an interim board of directors, a steering committee and three subcommittees.

Ebony Jackson, a small business owner, joined the steering committee last fall. Jackson, 36, has lived on the North Side since she was 16 and now resides there with her four children. Although she considered moving away as the community faced hardships over the last couple of decades, she chose to stay in the neighborhood where her parents still live today.

“As I got older and had opportunities to live on different sides of town, this one just felt more close-knit and tight and more of what I’m used to,” Jackson said.

When Kmart closed its location in Binghamton Plaza in December 2016, Jackson said the community experienced another devastation.

“The North Side is as resilient as ever, but [Kmart’s closing] had a negative effect in that we really, really want to see some economic upturn over here,” Jackson said.

For Jackson, living on the North Side has been more positive than negative. She has a car and can get her family to and from the Weis on Robinson Street. Her mobility, however, has made her life easier than many of her neighbors’. Andre Callender has lived on the North Side with his family for roughly two years after he moved from New York City to be closer to his father. Before Callender purchased a vehicle, his most accessible options for groceries could only be reached by cab or bus.

“Since Kmart going, there’s really no food spot over here that people would be able to have access to,” Callender said. “I’m pretty sure a lot of people don’t like driving across town or don’t like driving all the way to Walmart or something to go buy some stuff, so I’m pretty sure that would help a lot of people over here.”

Kevin Paredes/Photography Editor Ebony Jackson, 36, has lived on the North Side with her family for 20 years. She is the founder and owner of a consultancy and marketing agency based in Binghamton.

According to a neighborhood survey conducted by the North Side Grocery Project in 2009, 90 percent of North Side residents surveyed said they would “actively patronize a new local grocer.”

However, when determining what type of grocery provider they would prefer, 65 percent said they “desired” a chain-store operator, while only 18 percent “favored a co-op.”

Jackson, however, said after many failed plans for a local chain store, it’s time for a new, community-based option to emerge.

“We always get these promises of economic development and they always fall through,” Jackson said. “Over the last few years a lot of businesses have come and gone in efforts to try to make money but not really trying to help or give back.”

In an effort to insert itself into the local conversation, the steering committee has hosted a number of events in the last six months around the greater Binghamton area.

In October, the steering committee and Roosevelt Institute hosted a forum and panel on food insecurity in Old Union Hall at BU. Over 100 attendees participated in a simulation of the challenges plaguing food desert communities, including factors of accessibility and cost.

In November, Ross, Jackson, Taylor and Camille Ricks, another member of the steering committee and North Side resident, spoke at the North Side Community Assembly at the Centenary Chenango Street Church.

Kevin Paredes/Photography Editor Flyers for neighborhood events cover the community board at the Centenary Chenango Street Church.

Many of the 13 attendees, including Janet McHenry, have lived on the North Side for their entire lives. McHenry, who organized the meeting, acts as the leader of the group.

“We’ve been down this road many, many times and hit the brick wall,” McHenry said. “Personally, I’m a little hesitant, only because we’ve been there and done this a number of times. I want to see it happen, but we really need a buy-in from the city.”

Another town hall on the North Side was held in March, with visual support from Broome County Executive Jason Garnar and Broome County Legislator Mary Kaminsky, who represents the county’s 14th District.

Another community outreach event is expected this June. While community support is shaping up, the largest obstacle facing the food co-op is funding.

Still, the food co-op has received a number of donations in recent months. In January, the project was awarded a grant of roughly $18,000 from the United Presbyterian Church to fund a business plan and feasibility study. The church also gifted 20 percent of its donations during Lent to Many Hands Food Co-op. The team is waiting on a number of pending grant approvals, including some from United Way and BU’s Ross Fund.

The face of the North Side has continued to change as well. In January, the blighted Big Lots location was torn down after the city was awarded a $500,000 state grant. The building will be replaced by an affordable housing project. Since 2017, the Community Hunger Outreach Warehouse (CHOW) mobile grocery store has been working on the North Side, and the Healthy Lifestyles Coalition has brought together nearly two dozen local groups and businesses to provide programs in the neighborhood. While these developments can alleviate some of the effects of food insecurity, Taylor said they are not sustainable solutions.

“They are fantastic, but they’re still just Band-Aids,” Taylor said. “We need a serious grocery store in the neighborhood and if we can’t rely on a for-profit organization to make that happen then maybe we have to do it ourselves and create a community owned business.”

The co-op still has a long way to go before a physical storefront can open its doors. At this rate, however, the committee expects the business to open as early as fall 2019, with start-up costs estimated at around $2.3 million.

Many Hands Food Co-op projects it will create 45 to 50 jobs upon opening and generate annual sales of $4.8 million in a 10,000 square-foot space. The committee wants to focus on keeping the price of membership low, probably around $25.

These expectations, despite a slow but steady growth over the last couple of years, are what keep Currie optimistic.

“It’s tilling the garden, it’s getting all of the rocks out of the field, getting the soil prepared to accept it and I think we’re ready to plant,” Currie said. “That’s how I would describe where we’re at right now.”