Anthony “Lefty” Roy arrived nearly 40 minutes early to his Thursday morning all-staff meeting. The 57-year-old, hired just a week earlier to fill a floater position at the soon-to-open Dorchester Food Co-op, lives just a few doors down from its Bowdoin Street site — it’s one of the easiest commutes he’s ever had.
“I was there when they started doing the building, watched the whole thing go up,” Roy said through a wide smile, pointing into the 6,000-square-foot space, still bustling with construction. “I put the application in, and I hounded . . . them.”
Roy used to sell produce at Haymarket, an hour or more commute on the Red Line each way. Now, he can see where he works from the porch of his three-decker home and, starting this summer, he’ll just need to cross the street for organic meat and veggies.
The Dorchester Food Co-op will open in July in the Bowdoin-Geneva commercial district, bringing fresh, affordable produce to one of Boston’s most underserved neighborhoods, long considered a food desert, according to cofounder and board member Jenny Silverman. Although a specific date has not yet been announced, the opening represents the culmination of more than a decade spent a designing the location, building community partnerships, and recruiting members.
The co-op business model allows customers to invest in the company as member-owners, giving them say in the operations. There has not been a food co-op in Boston since Harvest Co-ops shuttered its Jamaica Plain location in 2018.
Even without a ready storefront , the Dorchester co-op has recruited more than 1,500 member-owners, including Mayor Michelle Wu and former mayor Marty Walsh, and local enthusiasm has steadily grown, Silverman said. Membership costs a one-time fee of $100, but payment plans and subsidies are available.
“Everybody who’s a member has some kind of financial investment in the co-op,” Silverman said. “It’s not really a donation, it’s considered a member-equity payment. And what it means is that the household that pays that owns one share of the co-op.”
Membership is not a requirement to shop, but member-owners are able to vote on representative board members, and will receive a share of the store’s profits — even if that takes a few years, she said. Shares are capped at one per household.
Those privileges are also extended to employees, considered worker-owners, giving them more stake in the business’ success than they would have at traditional grocers, according to Silverman. Worker-owners also get a say in logistic issues like dress codes and disciplinary policies.
For some worker-owners, who are largely from the neighborhood, the co-op will be the first time they can claim equity in a business, according to Angel Figueroa, a project manager and community liaison at Dorchester’s Family Nurturing Center.
“They are very intentional about recruiting from the area,” he said. “So the staff is going to look like the neighborhood.”
In Dorchester and Roxbury, that kind of community-oriented investment is a rarity, according to Dan P. Miller, associate professor at Boston University’s School of Social Work, and director of the school’s PhD program. He said that part of Boston has “suffered from historic levels of disinvestment.”
“And what that shows up as is lack of access to supermarkets for a substantial portion of the people,” Miller said. “Having a community-run, cooperative grocery store that people can go to, that’s a good.”
Nearly one-quarter of Roxbury households are food insecure — more than anywhere else in Boston — and so are 18.1 percent of Dorchester households, according to the city’s Food Access Agenda, released in 2021.
About 10 percent of American households are food insecure, according to data collected by the United States Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service. In Boston, that figure was 15 percent in 2018, the most recent year for which data is available, according to the agenda.
Roxbury and Dorchester’s median household incomes — $30,534 and $55,009, respectively — each fall below the city’s average of $71,259, according to the 2019 American Community Survey.
Currently, neighborhood residents have only a handful of options for their grocery shopping, and even fewer that are healthy. Miller added that people living in food deserts face issues beyond just nutrition, including spending excess time and money traveling to and from grocery stores in different neighborhoods. He said that food insecurity is a problem “decades and decades in the making,” and eliminating it entirely will require more solutions like the co-op.
“We need these kind of co-ops and other ways to help create some cracks in the armor a little,” Miller said. “But I think if we’re going to really meaningfully change people’s experience of food insecurity, it’s going to have to be a large-scale, federal effort or a really substantial reconfiguration of the way that we get food to people.”
On Thursday, John Santos, the co-op’s general manager, gave a tour of the storefront, pointing to some of his favorite ways to crack the armor of food inequity. He grinned as he cracked open a walk-in fridge, stepping inside to show just how much dairy and fruit it could fit, and he pantomimed pouring a cup of coffee at the soon-to-be grab-and-go counter, over the whir of a circular saw.
Santos is still deciding exactly what to stock, weighing the co-op’s goals of prioritizing organic, sustainable, and fair-trade product against the community’s need to keep prices low.
“It’s one of the biggest challenges,” Santos said. “We have to be a business that operates profitably, but we can have our focus and be challenged to operate ethically and with specific concerns.”
To reduce upfront costs, he said, the co-op bought much of its equipment second-hand. Oven hoods, which will waft up the scents of fresh-baked bread, casseroles, and traditional Cape Verdean dishes, came from Brown University; a handful of café tables, where neighbors can gather over a cup of organic coffee, first lived in classrooms at Simmons College; the sales floor shelves were salvaged from a shuttered Best Buy.
As he paced the empty aisles, Santos rattled off examples of products soon to fill them: natural candies, bulk rice — basmati or jasmine, depending on the mood — fresh and frozen cuts of beef, locally grown potatoes, and apples. The list went on and on.
“Anything folks want,” Santos said, “we’ll be able to have some of that.”