By Sam Phillips
Lake-to-River Food Cooperative met with Youngstown State University’s Student Government Association about opening a grocery store on Elm Street this spring.
Lake-to-River Food Cooperative consists of farmers, food buyers and processors. The group delivers nutritious food directly to schools, restaurants and institutions. The store will feature locally-grown produce, fresh-baked bread and other products.
Melissa Miller, president of Lake-to-River Food Cooperative, said this has been a goal since the organization’s start.
“We really have been working towards this for the past four years,” Miller said. “Our intention was to get to a retail brick-and-mortar location, so we really just stepped along. We feel like [each step] formed this next decision, which is a grocery store.”
YSU students will be the target audience for the grocery store. Ashley Orr, president of SGA, said the organization wants their feedback and ideas about what the new store should feature.
“If they are going to have students as a huge customer base, then they want to have what students want. And I think that their willingness to listen to us really shows dedication,” Orr said. “And the one thing that I really like about this organization is their approach. They’re listening to students.”
Rebecca Banks, a YSU graduate, said the store will draw in students because many of them don’t have transportation to other grocery stores.
Jacob Schriner-Briggs, executive vice president of SGA, said it’s good for students to know where their food was grown.
Lake-to-River is also opening a cafe called Cultivate on the same street, so students can grab a cup of coffee to refuel after shopping at the store. They hope that creating these businesses in an area where vacant homes have been bulldozed will revitalize the neighborhood and give purpose to the space.
Unlike stores like Giant Eagle, the Lake-to-River grocery store intends to engage with the community and educate people about holistic lifestyles, healthy cooking and growing crops. For example, they offer cooking and canning classes at the Common Wealth Kitchen Incubator, a shared-use kitchen, across the street.
“I really hope we can reach out and do things to engage with students. A big part of any cooperative is education, so there will be lots of education,” Miller said. “There will be lots of education about food, and certainly there are opportunities in that space to learn about growing, so there’s lots of ways to engage with food and their community.”
She added that she isn’t trying to create competition for other stores. She wants to serve and educate the people of Youngstown.
People are encouraged to sell goods they make at the kitchen incubator.
Students who want hot food can go to the store and buy things that other people made at the incubator, instead of purchasing fast food.
The store will be open year round, and Miller said they have a contract with a regional supplier so students can expect the same quality and freshness of produce in the winter.
“Yes, we will have local apples and local lettuce in season, but when winter time comes and there’s not local lettuce anywhere else, we’ll still have lettuce,” Miller said. “We’ll still have bananas, granola, things like that, that everybody needs.”
Arnie Clebone, treasurer of Lake-to-River Food Cooperative, said that because of methods local farmers use to grow produce, they will still offer some locally-grown produce out of season.
“We have a lot of indoor growers who have a huge hydroponic lettuce grower, and we have people who grow in hoop houses [similar to a greenhouse]. When we have things that we find during the season, some of our people use the incubator and [freeze it or can it] and save it for prepared foods,” he said.
Miller said the food they will have in the off season will be more fresh and delicious than at a normal grocery store.
Lake-to-River plans on involving students; they will provide jobs and internships, as well as allow students to make money by selling homemade goods.
“We need student support and we hope we can get it because it will be vital to the success. It’s a large market,” Clebone said.