Michael McFarland and Marckus Williams pack sacks of chips, canned vegetables and diapers in their cars to be delivered to a local homeless shelter.
The two boys are in their thirties and childhood friends.
“We grew up together in the same neighborhood, where we went to school together, rode bikes, fixed cars, you know, just everyday friends,” Williams said.
You live in northeast Indianapolis and have also seen the area change over time. Up to five grocery stores have closed in recent years and thousands of residents are struggling and feeling neglected.
A few years ago, McFarland and Williams wanted to start a business together. They thought about opening a variety store selling t-shirts and other things. However, when they learned that their neighborhood is considered a food desert, they decided to open Wall Street Grocery, a small grocery store on 38th Street.
But things weren’t easy. They were dealing with a wafer-thin profit margin and faced constant obstacles for distributors and supply chains. Some traders did not want to come to their region, others delivered fruit or vegetables on certain days and others did not. Nevertheless, the shop was a lifeline for many residents.
And McFarland and Williams continued to be actively involved in working with local organizations and health departments for access to food.
“I think our name is on a lot of people’s ears,” said McFarland.
That has led to their next big business – they are closing down Wall Street Grocery and preparing to run and own a full-size grocery store that will open next year on 38th Street and Sheridan Avenue.
Community-led corporate social responsibility project
It started when the family-owned medical device manufacturer Cook Medical decided to build its new facility near the Arlington Woods neighborhood. The facility produces needles, catheters and other medical devices that are used in hospitals around the world. The new facility will create more than 100 jobs, which was good news for this underserved community.
Still, a problem kept cropping up.
“One of the things we heard from so many people was that access to food was a problem,” said Pete Yonkman, president of Cook Medical. “You had left five grocery stores in the last five years and you have 100,000 people with no access to food.”
While this was never part of Cook Medical’s original business plan, they decided to spend $ 2.5 million building a new grocery store to address food access issues – to serve the community and keep the staff on-site .
However, as a medical device company based in Bloomington, Indiana, Cook Medical did not have the expertise to run a grocery store. Yonkman got the chance to meet McFarland and Williams at their supermarket and then things went together.
“Here were two guys who were passionate about it. They grew up in the neighborhood and want to do this for their community,” Yonkman said. “When you have that together – you have opportunity and expertise together – it just sounds like something we could do.”
After construction of the new grocery store, called Indy Fresh Market, is completed, Cook will hand over operations and ownership to McFarland and Williams via a rental model. Although it is early to predict this, McFarland said that with their prospective sales, it won’t be long before they own 100% of the business.
“It will take about two to four years,” said McFarland. “It’s not bad to have your own grocery store.”
Local ownership of the business is raising new hopes among residents. Yonkman said that this type of community-led approach will also make it easier for the business to tailor its programs and operations to meet the specific needs of the community.
“”[McFarland and Williams] are striving to make room in the grocery store so that local growers who they know can bring their products to the grocery store, “said Yonkman. We are currently working with partners trying to find out how people who are prescribed food as medication be able to pay for this in the supermarket. “
Kash Rangan, a professor at Harvard Business School, said this is a model for corporate social responsibility (CSR) that has the potential to “solve real problems”.
“It’s a brilliant model,” said Rangan. “It’s a unique model. But you have to go the extra mile to be successful.”
That extra mile would provide ongoing financial and logistical support in case the new grocers need it later. In this case, Cook Medical will lay the foundation for a state-of-the-art CSR model. However, he cautioned that if the company takes a hands-off approach too soon, it could turn into another corporate vanity project.
From a public health perspective, the premise of the business sounds promising as having a full-size store makes it easier for residents to access fresh food. Cook also made sure the business didn’t sell alcohol or tobacco.
However, according to Niyati Parekh, a global public health professor at New York University, there cannot be any improvement in the overall health of the community if affordability and awareness are not considered. She said investing in programs to ensure affordable fresh food prices and creating incentives to encourage residents to spend their hard-earned dollars on healthier options could set this project apart.
“It could be that a grocery store has incentives: the more fruits and vegetables you buy, the more free points you can buy,” she said. “There could be very creative ways.”
When McFarland and Williams close their current supermarket, they find that there is a lot attached to their plans. They are currently starting a shadowing program with local grocery chains and a training program with the National Grocers Association to prepare for their new role at Indy Fresh Market.
They said their personal, vested interest in both the business and the community will play a huge role in the future success of the business.
This story was produced by Side Effects Public Media, a news collaborative dealing with public health.