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The Boston Globe

Opinion

Lawrence Harmon

Good food belongs in poor neighborhoods

Collectively owned grocery stores pop up in places like Jamaica Plain and Cambridge, where liberal-leaning residents make strong connections between their politics and their kitchen provisions. But what are the start-up and survival chances for a food co-op in the Bowdoin-Geneva section of Dorchester, where incomes are low, safety concerns are high, and people care more about the cost of a basket of food than whether it can be traced back to the source of a local farm?

This week, the Globe published a five-part series on the 68-block, Bowdoin-Geneva area, much of it focused on families unhinged by violence. But the reporters revealed a lot more about this neighborhood than its punishing streets and foreclosed homes. It was a story of renewal, symbolized by the growth of a community garden on Coleman Street.

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Now Jhana Senxian, the garden’s chief tender, and other neighborhood leaders are directing their energies into the creation of a Dorchester food cooperative. It’s speculative. About a third of all new businesses fail in the first couple of years. Supermarkets present additional challenges in low-income neighborhoods, including the higher costs of fresh food and potential for low sales volume. It’s one thing for organizers to promote “a dynamic center for healthy eating and sustainable living that reflects the unique strengths and cultures of Dorchester.’’ It’s another thing to do it on the tiny profit margins typical of grocery stores.

Still, Dorchester residents and those beyond should consider a one-time investment of $100 to become member-owners of the Dorchester Community Food Co-op. Fresh food shouldn’t be the exclusive domain of the economic elite. This is the right time and place to spread the nutritional wealth.

Project manger Jenny Silverman, board member Senxian, and other backers are taking a business-like approach, including the commissioning of independent financial and site feasibility studies. Their passion is grounded in good planning. For more than a year, organizers have nurtured an appreciation for healthy eating in the community, first through a winter farmer’s market and later at a series of “Fresh Fridays’’ communal suppers where residents dined, enjoyed local entertainment, and swapped recipes for traditional dishes from Cape Verde, Haiti, and Vietnam.

For more than a year, organizers have nurtured an appreciation for healthy eating in the community.

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It was more than an exercise in community building among the area’s ethnic groups. Many food co-ops have found that profitability depends on the addition of on-site cafes or delis where people enjoy foods that are also available for sale on the shelves. Organizers are hoping that the Friday-night dinner concept will evolve into a cafe at the co-op.

While food co-ops in poor neighborhoods are rare, some thrive, according to Debbie Suassuna, a site and location specialist for the consulting firm Cooperative Development Services. Suassuna gave the thumbs up for the 2011 opening of the New Orleans Food Cooperative in the Faubourg Marigny section of the city. But the positive sales forecast in New Orleans, she said, depended in part on the siting of a police substation right next door.

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Inner city co-ops, said Suassuna, also need to stock a higher percentage of conventional food items in order to be eligible for payments from some subsidized food programs. Often, the best way to keep prices low is to eschew the top-of-the-line organic food products in favor of lesser-known natural brands of good quality.

Suassuna will be in Boston next month to evaluate several proposed sites for the Dorchester co-op, including an empty lot at the corner of Bowdoin and Topliff streets. A financial analyst, meanwhile, will assess if equity shares, loans, grants, and other funding or leasing sources are sufficient to get the$7.5 million project off the ground.

Much remains to be done. Organizers have sold only 180 memberships toward a goal of 1,000. While anyone would be welcome to shop at the co-op, only members are eligible for profit sharing. The business plan also envisions the store as a source of bulk buying for institutions and even a “food hub’’ supplier for corner stores. But no one from the co-op, as of mid-week, had reached out to owners of the nearby bodegas. Such owners may feel threatened by the co-op. And this is a neighborhood that doesn’t need any additional tension.

Between now and the fall of 2014, when the co-op organizers hope to open, there won’t be much time for sitting back and sipping herbal tea.

Lawrence Harmon can be reached at harmon@globe.com.

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