April 26, 2018

Turning food sharing into community building

The Georgia Avenue Food Co-Op
by Chris Seaton

It just wasn’t enough. Each Wednesday, the people of the Summerhill neighborhood were getting a free, nutritious meal in the basement of Georgia Avenue Church. Though well-intended, the meal failed to build an interdependent community like Chad Hale and Brian Lowring desired. Chad and Brian, then pastors of the Georgia Avenue Church in Summerhill, wanted more than a once-a-week handout.

Chad and Brian adopted a food cooperative model from the Atlanta Community Food Bank. The model promised to use human assets that the Wednesday meals ignored. The first step to change the status quo was to give those being served the power to make decisions. That responsibility was the cornerstone for building community. And they needed to own and to operate the new co-op to make it work. After three months of listening to feedback about the new plan, the group voted to launch the Georgia Avenue Food Co-op.

“The food became a vehicle for forming community,” said Chad Hale. A group of 18 families grew quickly to 100 families with more on a waiting list. The co-op members worked together to supply each family with two weeks of food. Responsibilities were divided. Several members went to the Atlanta Community Food Bank to pick up more than one ton of safe but unmarketable food for a nominal price per pound. Others went to the Farmer’s Market for perishables at wholesale cost. Then the members of the co-op organized and assembled the food into boxes for each other.

The basement of Georgia Avenue Church had become the site where the food for hundreds of meals were put together, not just a weekly luncheon. The cost to each family for membership was remarkably only $2 each time the co-op met. That money paid for the expenses of the co-op, while grants were raised for the costs of the plentiful box of food each family receives.

After four years of growth, members started a second co-op. The two leaders were single mothers who lived in Summerhill. The co-op was not only meeting the physical need for food, but it is also met the spiritual need for belonging. Fay Romero, one of the leaders of the second co-op, said, “You have to understand, I have been in this community for 47 years. The people in this co-op are my neighbors, my friends.” Fay’s leadership led to a deeper relationship with her co-workers. She commented, “We share our lives with each other-the joys, the sorrows. We don’t have much material for each other, but we love each other. It is a tight bond.”

Chad Hale, also a member of the community, has learned that the group’s long life has provided a setting for trust and safety. He said, “We aren’t going to have a perfect community… and some of our members have needed a small setting where they could practice being responsible.”

Currently, four co-ops, which are part of Georgia Avenue Community Ministry, Inc., include 200 families and over 800 people. Organizers are raising money to start their fifth cooperative. For more information, go to their website at www.gacm.org.