Friday, July 22, 2022 | 2 a.m.
In 2011, just after the Great Recession, Nicole Folkes-Johnson and her husband, Donsha Johnson, both lost their jobs. The produce delivery company her husband worked for had gone out of business. Folkes-Johnson had worked in advertising. They had a mortgage, car payments and kids to support during a period when economic growth in the country was considerably slower than it had ever been in recent history.
One of the child care centers that was on her husband’s delivery route didn’t know the company had gone out of business. When workers called him to inquire about their missing food delivery, Folkes-Johnson and her husband used severance money to purchase food and made the delivery. When the center informed them that seven other day care centers were also in need, the couple provided the same service. By the end of that week, they had purchased a truck from her husband’s former employer and launched a new business.
“We kept thinking it was temporary, but then we began to share food with our neighbors because so many of them were out of work,” Folkes-Johnson said.
Their food and vegetable co-op, Eat Right Atlanta, has since grown to distribute fresh produce from local farms through farmers markets at local hospitals and, since the pandemic, through online ordering and delivery. Their mission is to help residents of greater Atlanta — particularly those living in food deserts — eat better food for less money.
Now as metro area residents face inflation rates that severely restrict food budgets, food co-ops are adjusting once again to provide low-cost, healthy food to those who need it most.
“Food costs and delivery costs increased over 50%, so we had to be creative,” Folkes-Johnson said. In April, the couple began leasing 11 acres of farmland in Ellenwood to grow organic vegetables, and they are in the process of buying the property.
“With the food we’re growing on our farm, we’re already seeing the difference in the money we’re spending monthly,” she said. “The goal is to keep bringing that number down so we can feed our customers the way we should.”
In the U.S., cooperatives date back to Colonial times, and most were for the benefit of farmers. It was in the early 1900s that consumer cooperatives began to take root. The principles of cooperatives include democratic control and concern for the community. The popularity of cooperatives has come in waves, with interest and success often rising in the wake of some sort of disaster, be it a depressed economy, social injustice or most recently, a global pandemic.
COVID-19 exposed some of the very problems that food co-ops are designed to solve. These types of collectives provide sustenance to communities that do not have healthy food options and address other failures in traditional food systems.
Adding a farm to its business qualified Eat Right Atlanta to accept SNAP benefits at its farmers markets, which rotate several times a week through local hospital systems including Piedmont, Wellstar, Children’s Hospital of Atlanta, Emory and Southern Regional.
Folkes-Johnson said they also help families having financial trouble by sending them food or providing pickup at one of the markets, free of charge. Food bags or boxes (starting around $15 for a household of one) contain a mix of fruits and vegetables, 90% of which come from local farms in the summer. That percentage drops during later months, a necessary sacrifice to keep the co-op operating year-round, Folkes-Johnson said.
In addition to markets, from its warehouse, Eat Right Atlanta has continued its food delivery service with drop-offs up to 60 miles outside of the city.
In the true spirit of cooperatives, Folkes-Johnson said the business plan changes from week to week.
“It is really based on the needs of the people,” she said. “We were guided to do this. It was not something we thought of or planned.”
Eat Right Atlanta serves more than 500 families each week, but 1 in 4 families in metro Atlanta is food insecure, according to a 2017 baseline report from Food Well Alliance.
Experts have given mixed reviews to food co-ops in America throughout history, specifically noting the limited success due to insufficient capital, poor management or a lack of understanding of cooperative principles.
But each generation can improve on the past and create better food systems, tweaking and adjusting the model for co-ops while holding fast to the principles on which they were founded.
Nedra Rhone is a columnist for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.