Startup Interviews: Natural State Food Co-op

An interview with Devon Foster.

NSF logo

The staff at FCI knows that the path to opening a new retail food co-op is rarely a straight line. But learning that other startups face the same challenges, and how they cope with them, is a great tool for any organizing group. Startup Interviews will highlight various groups all across teh country,. Thanks to Devon Foster of Natural State Food Co-op in Arkansas for being the first. 

FCI: Tell us about where Natural State Food Co-op is located – what kind of community/area is it, what is your current definition of where you will locate your store (within a certain town? a county? etc)

Devin Foster (DF): Little Rock, Arkansas is an urban food desert with large numbers of Low Income (LI) and Low Access (LA) households, meaning that a significant number of downtown Little Rock residents are located more than one urban mile from their nearest supermarket, and are less likely to have access to a vehicle. Much of this economic marginalization by neighborhood can be traced to redlining, blockbusting, and the rise of suburban developments, as well as the construction of highways in the 1950’s which sliced through urban residential areas. With a renewed interest in downtown living and urban vitality, many new residents are discovering what previous tenants have had to put up with for decades – a very noticeable lack of grocery stores.

The Natural State Food Co-op’s startup HQ, through a membership with the recently-opened Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub, is located in Downtown North Little Rock, a quaint neighborhood also called Argenta.

Downtown Little Rock and Downtown North Little Rock are separated by a short bridge across the Arkansas River. Both suffer from a lack of decent grocery options, and our Board and volunteers comprise of residents of both cities. Our official stance is that the co-op will go where (1) the first 500 members want it; (2) there is a social need; and (3) it makes financial and retail sense. However, we are focusing our outreach and visibility efforts in the Downtown NLR, Downtown Little Rock, and SoMa (South Downtown) neighborhoods, which we feel meet both (2) and (3).

FCI:  How long has Natural State Food Co-op been organizing and how did it begin?

Natural State boothDF: We began organizing in spring 2014 after the closure of a boutique grocery store in Argenta, when community members held a meeting with the manager of the only grocery food co-op in Arkansas, Ozark Natural Foods (located over 3 hours away from Little Rock), to discuss what they could do to put a grocery store back in central North/Little Rock. Ozark Natural Foods offered support and mentorship should the community decide to start a food co-op. The resulting core group of volunteers has formed a Board of Directors, incorporated, adopted bylaws with the assistance of our mentor co-op, and begun the work of community engagement.

FCI: What is the core vision of Natural State Food Co-op that drives your organizing work?

DF: There are far too many businesses in Arkansas which leave their communities worse off, particularly when it comes to food. We want neighborhood access to tasty, nutritious food that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg, and we want a local business which enriches its community, not the other way round. And lastly, we want to serve and support our local farmers and sustainable producer co-ops by being their best customer!

FCI: What is next up for NSFC?

DF: While we have the legal and financial logistics of a Stage 1 Startup Co-op checked off, we are now focusing on building a strong volunteer and member-ownership base preparatory to launching a BIG membership drive. We’re also planning a regular Co-op Speaker Series featuring a talk or workshop on topics of interest to build community and offer something of value while we move forward with the business of starting a business.

FCI: What is your greatest challenge right now as as a startup?

We can only pick one?

The greatest challenge we’ve discovered is how to communicate what a grocery co-op is, and what the startup process will entail.

There is only one grocery co-op in NW Arkansas, while producer co-ops are everywhere. This is fantastic for our farmers (shout-out to Grass Roots Livestock Cooperative, Little Rock Tomato, and Foodshed Farms), but it can be a source of initial misunderstanding when we unfurl our “Co-op” banner at an event or promote the Facebook page, and makes for a slow undertaking in getting the word out, enrolling volunteers, and gaining new member-owners. Clarifying the difference between a farmer’s co-op feed & seed and a consumer-owned grocery co-op sometimes requires more than one conversation.

An equally great challenge is organizing ourselves as a collective of very busy volunteers: attending meetings, coming up with and agreeing on next steps, and holding ourselves accountable for follow through. Focusing on more than one Cornerstone at a time can be difficult without a strong foundation of take-charge volunteers, a bit like rubbing your belly while patting your head. Happily we’ve been making good progress on that learning curve, one new volunteer at a time!

Want to share your startup story? FCI welcomes ideas for Great Events, Startup Interviews, and any other topic! Email info@fci.coop to work with us and share your story.
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