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Local food co-op helps relieve ‘food desert’

Mel Flanagan | Tuesday, September 18, 2012

In the spring of 2011, now-senior Erin Wright helped launch a South Bend food co-op for a community-based research course, and the quality of both the produce and neighborhood interaction has kept her going back ever since.
The Monroe Park Food Co-op in downtown South Bend welcomes students and residents of any income level to purchase nutritious, low-cost fruits, vegetables and other staple food items.
“I really like the personal interaction with the people that work there and its members,” Wright said. “And it’s really affordable, high-quality fruits and vegetables that I probably wouldn’t buy otherwise.”
Professor Margaret Pfeil, a theology professor and staff member at the Center for Social Concerns, said the idea for the co-op was developed during the spring of 2011 after the Catholic Worker community asked residents of Monroe Park where they purchased groceries.
“There really is no accessible grocery store nearby that offers healthy food at affordable prices,” Pfeil said. “Lots of people said they either borrowed a car or got a ride from a friend to Wal-Mart.”
Monroe Park qualifies as a food desert, Pfeil said, which is a neighborhood that is located more than one mile away from a full-service source of food.
“There are smaller markets, but they don’t offer a great variety and are relatively expensive,” Pfeil said. “It would be a place you would go in a snowstorm to get milk or emergency provisions.”
After asking the residents what food options they would like to see nearby, Pfeil said most of the community wanted easier access to fresh vegetables and produce.
Pfeil, along with Wright and other students in the community-based theology course Pfeil was teaching at the time, began to explore options among local farmers. Most of the farmers agreed they would support the co-op, Pfeil said.
“They were in need of market venues in the city,” she said.
Since then, the Monroe Park Co-Op has expanded from one day of sales to three days, Thursday through Saturday.
Pfeil said the organization currently has 200 members, who include students, average-income sponsor members and low-income members who volunteer time rather than money to the co-op.
“Members are self-selected,” Pfeil said. “If people self-identify as low-income, they can choose a neighbor membership or resident of Michiana membership, and they volunteer at the co-op three hours per month.”
The collaboration between the community of South Bend and Notre Dame students has been vital to the launch and growth of the co-op, Pfeil said.
“I can’t say enough about the enthusiasm, energy and thoughtfulness from the students who have become involved in the co-op,” she said. “Students with interests in economic and theological issues involved with food security have all been able to find an interesting connection at the co-op.”
Wright, who held a student membership for one year and has volunteered as a worker-member since, said the co-op provides her with a great opportunity to work with, rather than for, South Bend community members.
“It’s not Notre Dame students doing something for the community, but it’s working together with community members to create something that serves everyone,” she said. “It’s very much a collaborative effort, nothing we could have just done on our own.”
Other students at Notre Dame have become involved with different sections of the co-op’s food chain. Freshman Tony Zhong is currently enrolled in a community-based writing and Rhetoric course in which he volunteers at the farms that supply the co-op.
Zhong said he has already enjoyed the experience immensely and plans to become more immersed in the world of the Monroe Park Co-Op, particularly with trying to publicize the co-op.
“I want to have more people shop there and to encourage more Notre Dame students to volunteer there,” Zhong said. “The farms produce inexpensive, high-quality, organic food. And it’s cheaper than Martin’s.”
Contact Mel Flanagan at         mflanag3@nd.edu