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West Charlotte food co-op in works

The West Boulevard Corridor, federally recognized as a food desert due to its lack of healthy food choices, is getting a boost from Wells Fargo and the Charlotte Housing Authority to jumpstart the production and sale of fresh food.

This 3.5 acre tract leading into the Arbor Glen neighborhood at Clanton Road and West Boulevard is slated for greenhouses, a learning lab, and ultimately, a co-op grocery. Photo by Roberta Fuchs

This 3.5 acre tract leading into the Arbor Glen neighborhood at Clanton Road and West Boulevard is slated for greenhouses, a learning lab, and ultimately, a co-op grocery. Photo by Roberta Fuchs

Officials from the West Boulevard Neighborhood Coalition and Habitat for Humanity Charlotte this week unveiled a development plan, dubbed Seeds for Change, that envisions the construction of a 15,000-square-foot co-op grocery on the southwest corner of Clanton Road and West Boulevard. The Charlotte Housing Authority is providing the 3.5 acres for the project, which initially will start off small by breaking ground on raised vegetable beds and an aquaponics greenhouse.

Wells Fargo, which has long had a philanthropic interest in revitalizing the area, is donating $75,000 to launch the project.

Rickey Hall, president of the coalition, said the area has sought a tier-one or tier-two grocery for decades. Many residents, he said, shop at local convenience and dollar stores, where fresh produce is not an option. Others travel to Wilkinson or South boulevards for supermarket access, he said.

“This will be a game changer for us,” Hall said. “It will be a community owned and driven project that will transform West Boulevard.”

Hall said he has been working for two years on Seeds for Change, and that Wells Fargo met with stakeholders early last year on addressing the food and nutritional needs of the area.

“It makes sense to do a co-op,” he said. “We can put healthy food on the shelves at a lower price point.”

But the project is ambitious, and will take five years to complete.

“It’s very much in the early stages,” said Phil Prince, director of marketing and communications at Habitat for Humanity Charlotte. Along with building the community garden and greenhouse, plans for the first year include launching a fundraising campaign. Habitat will oversee the project’s finances, while the Lee Institute and UNC Charlotte Urban Institute are charged with community engagement and best-practices research.

“It’s something that will be a huge opportunity for the area,” said Chrystal Joy, director of the Lee Institute. “They weren’t able to attract a grocery store, so they’re making an economic development alternative for the community.”

Anna Zuevskaya, neighborhood revitalization coordinator at Habitat, said that in the first year, the greenhouse will grow 200,000 heads of lettuce and employ up to 30 youth and five adults. Plans include selling the produce to local stores and restaurants.

The site will expand in the second phase with an additional four greenhouses and a learning lab, dubbed Aqueous One. The lab will give local students hands-on experience in aquaponics, a symbiotic system in which the waste produced by tank-raised tilapia provides nutrients to plants grown in water. The plants, in turn, filter the water before it is returned to the fish.

The grocery co-op, slated for phase three, will employ up to 60 people, Zuevskaya said.

Seeds for Change won’t come cheap, with the coalition estimating it will cost more than $5 million before coming to fruition.

Price said he believed corporate neighbors vested in the West Boulevard corridor would take the lead in helping to fund the project. In addition, Hunt said, the coalition planned on applying for federal funds earmarked for projects that increase access to healthy foods in low-income communities.

Hall said Seeds for Change has so far garnered a lot of community support. Current team members also include Shook Kelley, which will provide site design, and 100 Gardens, a local provider of aquaponics education.

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