The Austin Community Food Co-op’s mission of food justice is steeped in its founders’ love for the Austin community and an unyielding desire for self-determination.
Launched in July 2017 by co-founders Briana Shields, Cassandra Newman, and Vanessa Stokes, the mission of the Austin Community Food Co-op (ACFC) is to empower and uplift the community by opening a member-owned grocery store to provide access to healthy food choices within the neighborhood, develop food literacy resources, and invest in cooperative economics with residents, according to Shields.
Shields, ACFC’s project manager, said although the idea of the co-op has evolved over the years, the mission of bringing a full-service grocery store to address the waning access to health food choices has always remained the same.
At its core, ACFC operates under three pillars: cooperative effort, collective impact, and community wealth building. Shields told Growing Community Media these pillars and the desires of the grocery store’s member-owners are guiding the direction of the co-op instead of the corporate stakeholders who define traditional grocery stores.
Member-owners will own a stake in the grocery store and have equal voting rights in its direction. Details concerning the criteria for who will be a member-owner, how many member-owners the co-op will support, and member-owner rules and bylaws are still to be finalized.
“Our vision is really to strengthen the health, wellness, and local economy of the Austin community through this cooperation,” said Shields, who has been an Austin resident for more than 20 years. “We absolutely value access to healthy lifestyles, economic, and democratic education, collaboration, integrity, and to be in solidarity. We believe that through those things we will be able to identify and address the main core issues within our community that created this lack of healthy food options and lack of actual access to grocery stores.”
The primary goal of the co-op is to launch a member-owners operated grocery store. Due to the high profile exits of grocers over the last few years, Austin is in dire need of an influx of full-service grocery stores. The neighborhood has two full-service grocery stores serving 90,000 residents as of August 2023, according to Austin Eats, an initiative to create synergy among community organizations dedicated to providing healthy food choices and healthy food infrastructure for Austin residents.
“Our community members’ number one question is: ‘when is the grocery store going to be open?’ That is how much the community needs it,” said Shields. “We need a solution that is owned by the community. We are the equity investors; we are the ones to create the sustainable solution. We don’t have to worry about this going anywhere.”
Plans for opening an ACFC grocery store are underway. Shields said her team has been working with consultants on a feasibility study to determine the best location for a grocery store; however, any further details will not be disclosed at this time. Decisions about what vegetables will be in stock, which amenities the grocery store will have, cost of membership, and more will be decided by the member-owners and the steering committee.
“Right now, we are currently working out our steering committee,” Shields said. “Part of my role as project manager is to help develop the process for creating the operating structure for the co-op which will focus on us incorporating and then building out the steering committee. Through the steering committee, the owner membership will be developed.”
Opening a grocery store that is both reflective of the community and that provides a wide variety of dietary options is a key objective for the ACFC team. Olivia Klein, ACFC’s community relations associate, said some people she spoke to referenced Oak Park’s Sugar Beet Food Co-op as an example of what to expect, but she explains ACFC’s grocery store will be unique.
“Food Co-ops are rooted in their communities, making each one distinct,” said Klein via email. “We want to build the Austin Community Food Co-op collectively, which means receiving input from community members about what they want to buy, cook, and eat.”
Klein said the co-op invites future shoppers to fill out this input form about barriers to healthy food and what they want to see from us in the future.
The ACFC is one of more than 20 Austin Eats partner organizations. Austin Eats operates under the umbrella of Austin Coming Together, a local non-profit whose goal is to amplify the collective efforts of its member organizations that work toward improving education and economic development outcomes for the Austin community.
Klein explained to Growing Community Media that the co-op participates in the Austin Eats initiative through monthly meetings, canvassing opportunities, community events, and has received funding through Austin Fresh for a food literacy web series that is currently under development.
Grace Cooper, project specialist for Austin Coming Together, described working with ACFC as “great,” adding that Shields is the chair of Austin Coming Together’s community narratives taskforce for its quality-of-life plan.
“Briana is a really passionate community leader, Austin-raised. It’s great to have them in the fold,” said Cooper.
Austin Coming Together received a $250,000 grant from The Austin Fresh Fund in 2020. The grant funds were used over a two-year period to create the foundation for the Austin Eats initiative. Cooper said Austin Eats was recently awarded an additional $900,000 grant from The Austin Fresh Fund for this year and next year.
The Austin Fresh Fund is a grant program by The Lumpkin Family Foundation, which in 2020 created a one-million-dollar annual fund to “expand healthy retail options, support community gardens and local food production, grow food enterprises, and protect and strengthen food assistance programs in the Austin neighborhood over a five-year span,” according to its website.
“The process is very grassroots; I think we are very fortunate to have a relationship with Austin Coming Together, which is our fiscal sponsor, that supports our developments and connects us with resources so that way this initiative could move forward and actually grow,” said Shields. “Without the connections and resources, the initiative would have probably ceased by now. We are in a really great place to build relationship with community members as well as community partners.”
Meanwhile, ACFC has been busy this summer tabling at events like the Austin Town Hall City Market sponsored by the city of Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs, and Special Events (DCASE). The Austin Town Hall City Market is a farmers market held at the Austin Town Hall Park on Thursday afternoons from noon to 5 p.m. The farmers market opened on June 8 and concludes for the season on November 2.
Klein explained informing the public about the co-op has not been without its difficulties.
“It can be challenging to ask for people’s trust in a project that is so new and can take a long time to realize,” said Klein. “Overall, however, we have received tremendous support around the idea of a food co-op in Austin. This has been really motivating as we continue to work on implementing this vision.”
Gerald Watson, a frequent visitor of the Austin Town Hall City Market and neighborhood resident, told Growing Community Media while shopping at the market that he is interested in becoming a member of the co-op and signed up for ACFC’s newsletter to learn more about it.
“I’m big into a [food co-op] because things like that give you pride,” said Watson. “It gives you pride and purpose because it gives you more responsibility to make sure it is well taken care of so it won’t go away.”