hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News & Issues August 2019


With good, healthy food for all

Nonprofit Hudson store tests a new model for reaching ‘food deserts’



Selha “CeCe” Graham, the retail co-manager of Rolling Grocer 19 in Hudson, N.Y., says the nonprofit store’s mission is to “provide access to quality food for people at all income levels.” Scott Langley photo

Selha “CeCe” Graham, the retail co-manager of Rolling Grocer 19 in Hudson, N.Y., says the nonprofit store’s mission is to “provide access to quality food for people at all income levels.” Scott Langley photo


Contributing writer


For local people and visitors who crowd the sidewalks along Hudson’s main street most weekends, there are plenty of high-end restaurants and specialty food stores to suit every taste.
But for those who live in homes and apartments in the city’s core, buying everyday groceries has for years required driving more than two miles each way to the nearest supermarkets -- at the outer edge of a suburban shopping area in the neighboring town of Greenport.

The situation has been an inconvenient for newer, more affluent residents who otherwise revel in Hudson’s walkability, and it’s been a hardship for people with low incomes, seniors and others who can’t drive or don’t own cars.

Over the past year, though, a new effort has been under way to make good, healthy food more accessible to people of all income levels in Hudson and, eventually, in other communities across Columbia County.

Rolling Grocer 19 began operation last fall with a trailer and a leased truck that parked at locations in Hudson and elsewhere to sell groceries – like a library bookmobile, except carrying food rather than reading material.

In February, after technical and weather-related problems halted the truck runs, the project went stationary: Rolling Grocer 19 now operates out of a storefront at 6 South 2nd St. in Hudson, just off Warren Street, the downtown’s main commercial thoroughfare.

Rolling Grocer 19 -- the number stands for the number of cities and towns in Columbia County – looks in some ways like a miniature supermarket or food co-op, with fresh produce, meats, dairy products and other grocery items and staples.

But Rolling Grocer 19 (www.rollinggrocer19.org) also has a mission of social justice and sustainability. Supporters say the nonprofit operation aims to strengthen the region’s food system by working with local farmers to provide an additional sales outlet while offering fair prices for their products.

And the project is trying an innovative approach to address a basic dilemma in the sale of groceries: The price of high-quality, healthy food often is too expensive for many people with low or even moderate incomes.


Tiered pricing system
“There are disparities in access to good wholesome food based on income, class, culture and location,” explained Selha “CeCe” Graham, the retail co-manager of Rolling Grocer 19. “Our goal is to provide access to quality food for people at all income levels throughout the county.”
To help achieve that, Rolling Grocer 19 has adopted a strategy it calls a “fair pricing system,” in which people pay for items at a specified level based on their income and circumstances.
This is achieved through free memberships, which are available to all residents of Columbia County as well as people from certain adjacent sections of neighboring counties.


Photo by Scott Langley: Selha “CeCe” Graham, the retail co-manager of Rolling Grocer 19 in Hudson, N.Y., stands in front of display explaining the nonprofit store’s tiered pricing system.

When a customer signs up for a membership, they select one of four basic pricing tiers: a blue tier, with prices at 2 percent above wholesale levels; orange, with prices between wholesale and retail levels; green, with prices set at competitive retail levels; and a teal tier, in which customers designate an additional 15 percent contribution with their purchase to help offset the store’s cost of offering the lower-tier prices.

Each member’s chosen tier is entered into the store’s database. When they shop, their prices are automatically calculated based on their tier.

Its organizers set up Rolling Grocer 19 with the goal of providing access to fresh wholesome food throughout the county. And beyond Hudson, many other areas lack easy access to the groceries, as older, smaller supermarkets and grocery stories have closed over the past decade or two in communities from Philmont to New Lebanon.

Rolling Grocer 19 is a project of the Hawthorne Valley Association, the nonprofit organization based in the hamlet of Harlemville (about 25 minutes east of Hudson), where it operates a 400-acre biodynamic farm and the long-established Hawthorne Valley Farm Store. The association also runs a Waldorf school and sponsors a variety of programs to foster social and cultural renewal through the integration of education, agriculture and the arts.

The project also is supported by a coalition of other organizations and individuals who are collaborating to foster increased food security and local agriculture in Columbia County.
The operation initially was conceived as a mobile grocery that would set sell groceries out of a trailer, parking at specified times in downtown Hudson and other locations around the county.
“We started with that but had to temporarily discontinue the mobile service for technical and weather reasons,” said Martin Ping, executive director of the Hawthorne Valley Association. “In February, the opportunity to lease a storefront in Hudson arose, and we focused on that.”
The project’s backers also are working to set up systems to distribute and sell food, using the trailer or other retail spaces, at other locations around the county where access to fresh foods is difficult, such as Stuyvesant and New Lebanon, which lost its only local supermarket more than a decade ago.

“It’s primarily a matter of working out the logistics of delivery and supply,” Ping said.
The 630-square-foot Hudson store, although tiny by contemporary supermarket standards, currently has three part-time and two fill-time employees, plus another staff member whose services are provided through a workforce investment training program.


Honor system
The store’s organizers say they developed the tiered pricing system because they wanted to ensure that people with low and moderate incomes could afford to shop at Rolling Grocer 19.
Although the tiers carry suggested income guidelines, customers voluntarily select their own tier when they sign up for a membership. The store’s staff does not attempt to verify any member’s income or financial resources.

“It’s totally based on the honor system,” Graham said.
The blue tier is suggested for people with household incomes ranging from about $20,000 or less for an individual up to $65,000 for four people or more. The orange tier is for people with incomes between $20,000 and $35,000 for an individual and up to $80,000 for four or more. The green tier is for those who earn more than those levels.

“Other circumstances also figure into the selection of a tier,” Graham said.
Lower tiers are also oriented toward people whose income is limited or fixed, such as those relying on public assistance or Social Security. Other considerations include financial pressures such as high medical costs not covered by insurance, expenses related to immigration status, student debt or other issues.

Graham noted that people can change their selected tier based on circumstances. For example, if a person in the blue or orange tier receives a raise or promotion or gets a new job that increases their income significantly, they are encouraged to switch to a higher tier. Conversely if a person at a higher tier experiences a financial setback, they can lower their tier.

“We also have people change tiers temporarily, such as landscapers or other people who have seasonal jobs,” Graham noted.

In addition to shoppers who voluntarily donate through the teal tier, Rolling Grocer 19 is relying on grants and individual contributions to support the lower prices.

“We intend for the store to be as self-supporting as possible, but we’ll have to continually fund-raise to enable us to support the tiered pricing,” Graham said.

The store’s ability to offer competitive pricing is also bolstered by its affiliation with Hawthorne Valley and its farm store.

“That enables us to benefit from the volume buying power and connections with producers and suppliers they have with their store,” Graham said.


Good food for all
Rolling Grocer 19 originated as part of a broader five-year project called Fresh and Healthy Food for All that was launched in 2015 by the Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation and funded by anonymous donors.

The Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation is a tax-exempt public charity that helps people establish and manage private charitable funds. It also makes grants to improve the quality of life in Columbia and Dutchess counties in New York, Berkshire County in Massachusetts, and Litchfield County in Connecticut.

The foundation provides expertise to nonprofit groups and works to study and develop strategies for addressing particular needs and issues in the region.

The Fresh and Healthy Food for All project has its roots in a study the foundation commissioned on food and hunger in Columbia County. The study, by the consulting firm Karen Karp & Partners, yielded a report that became the basis for an ambitious ongoing effort to improve food security and access – and to support regional agriculture and a more equitable food distribution system.

(The consultant’s report is available at www.berkshiretaconic.org/bLearnbAboutBTCF/OurInitiatives, where there is link for Fresh and Healthy Food for All.)

This broader effort has involved individuals and groups representing farms, food pantries, food distributors and retailers, community-based organizations, consumers and county agencies.
Ping said the Hawthorne Valley Association was invited to participate and has been actively engaged in this larger initiative.

“There’s a double affordability gap when it comes to food,” he said. “Many people are not able to afford healthy locally produced food. But at the same time, many independent farmers are barely able to make a living.”

Ping emphasized that Rolling Grocer 19 is part of a larger multi-pronged effort to change this.
Among other findings, the Fresh and Healthy Food for All study determined that over the last decade, the number of grocery stores in Columbia County shrank by nearly 20 percent. Because of store closings and a lack of reliable transportation, the study concluded, about 15 percent of the people in Columbia County lack easy access to a full-service grocery store or supermarket.
The central core of Hudson, for example, was designated as a “food desert” by the U.S. Department of Agriculture because of its lack of grocery stores within walking distance of housing in the city center. The nearest full-fledged supermarkets are nearly three miles away in Greenport. Graham noted that for people in Hudson who can’t drive or don’t have cars, it can cost at least $28 a month in taxi fare to shop at the nearest supermarket.

Similar situations have developed in more rural communities. Since New Lebanon only supermarket closed, the town’s residents have had to drive 10 to 20 miles each way to reach stores in Chatham, Kinderhook or Pittsfield, Mass.

And as gentrification has taken place in Columbia County, food-related businesses have increasingly shifted their focus to serve the demands of upscale customers, part-time residents and tourists, the study found.


Spreading the bounty
In Hudson, the Hawthorne Valley Association was involved in an effort in 2014 to establish a full-service grocery store at a site that was being redeveloped on Warren Street in the center of downtown. At the time, officials said one goal of that effort was to provide access to affordable healthy food to low-income residents in the city. The plan ultimately fell through because of site-related issues and other factors.

“Nevertheless, we knew from Hudson residents that there was a strong interest in having access to healthy sources of protein, meat and other staples,” Ping said. “That led to the idea of Rolling Grocer 19 as a mobile market, and we received a start-up grant from the Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation.”

The Hawthorne Valley Association is also a fiscal sponsor of Long Table Harvest, an initiative begun in 2016 by Audrey Berman that gleans surplus products from local farms and distributes them to emergency food sites and community-based organizations. Berman is also actively involved with Rolling Grocer 19.

Among the other partners is the Hudson Core Group, a community-driven action group working to create opportunities for change in the local food system.

Rolling Grocer 19 is working to increase the demand for healthy and local food. It collaborates with community organizations to provide food education and related activities to teach and encourage low-income residents to include healthy foods into their diet and budget.
Ping noted that the Hawthorne Valley Association serves as the nonprofit fiscal sponsor of Rolling Grocer 19 – meaning the association’s nonprofit status covers the operation for tax purposes -- and the store’s staff members are employees of the association.

“Rolling Grocer 19 is an attempt to create one solution that can work in the real world,” Ping said. “Ultimately, if it proves to be a sustainable model, a goal is for it to spin off as an independent organization.”

Graham said the response to Rolling Grocer 19 has been very enthusiastic.
“Business has grown exponentially since we opened,” she said. “Some of the responses have been very powerful. I’ve heard from a number of customers who said they were struggling financially. They said the opening of Rolling Grocer 19 has provided them with an important resource that has made it more feasible to continue to live in Hudson.”