With the South Memphis Farmers Market and 2014 addition of an accompanying grocery store, The Works, Inc. strives to make the availability of fresh fruits, vegetables and other healthy options a year-round offering.
Brittany Stout, Food Programs Coordinator, The Works, Inc., oversees food programming for the farmers market and grocer. (Cat Evans)
The Works, a South Memphis community development corporation, recently amped up its free cooking classes at The Grocer's community kitchen, located within the store at 1400 Mississippi Boulevard. With the goal of expanding the store's customer base and securing its place as a community anchor, the classes connect The Grocer's healthy fare with family-friendly recipes.
“It’s a safe place to gather. It’s located in a food desert. We have fresh food. A healthy atmosphere to be in. It’s a nice place to be together and build community,” said Brittany Stout, food programs coordinator for The Works.
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Launched last August, the community kitchen offers 10 six-week classes for teens and adults. Participants meet once a week for two hours to learn how to cook fresh meals. The classes are implemented with a grant through Cooking Matters, a federal program that helps low-income families and children connect to healthy food.
“A big goal of the cooking class - and all of our food programs in general - is to make this more of an activated space where people are coming in. It’s more of a community feel, where people from the community can come — no matter who they are — and feel welcome coming here,” said Stout.
Located at the intersection of Mississippi and South Parkway, The Grocer grew out of the South Memphis Farmers Market, a project of The Works. It has a 2,000-square-foot retail space that is stocked with fresh fruits, vegetables, meat and dairy along with canned and dried goods. A 1,200-square-foot test kitchen is attached for cooking demonstrations and classes.
Students in the South Memphis community cooking class discuss their preparation. (Cat Evans)
While the kitchen is original to The Grocer, Stout is working to renew and expand the food programming for the South Memphis community.
Along with learning how to cook fresh meals, students receive a book filled with recipes and helpful tips, like how to cut up a whole chicken or how to use spices in place of salt. Most meals emphasize whole grains, fruits and vegetables. The recipe for every meal cooked in class is included in the book. When the class is finished, students also receive a bag that includes all the ingredients for that day’s recipe so they can prepare the meal at home.
“There is nothing like having fresh fruit and vegetables but knowing what to do with fresh fruit and vegetables to make them tasty ... which actually makes people want to consume more,” said Devin Marzette, manager of The Grocer.
Many classes also help students plan ahead for their next trip to the grocery store, including making a list so they don’t overbuy. Comparison shopping and how to navigate a grocery store are also covered. A class’ focus typically depends on the instructor’s strength.
Most have ten to fifteen students. In a typical class, students break into three groups after they wash their hands and don their aprons.
“That’s been a cool way for people to get to know each other. We kind of observe how they form their teams and their pride. One group will say, ‘Yeah, we’re the best turkey chili.' It depends on the personality of the class,” said Stout.
Previous to the additions of the farmers market, grocer and their programs, food options in the neighborhood were limited to what was available at corner stores — empty calories, often at marked up prices.
“There is not a shortage of stores; there is a shortage of ability to make meals. Technically, there is probably a store every half block. But to be able to make an affordable meal beyond a half block radius from this store is virtually almost impossible,” said Marzette.
Like many stressed areas, lack of access to transportation is an acute problem. Often, there are economic reasons. The costs of a car payment and insurance — not to mention gas and upkeep -— is too much. Others, either through age or impairment, also have trouble getting around. Among The Grocer's older
clientele, public transportation hasn’t proven to be a viable option.
“There is difficulty getting to a major grocery store. Trying to get things that you need sometimes when you don’t have transportation is difficult,” said Marzette.
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Instead of a major grocery store, The Grocer’s business model is more akin to a family-owned store.
“One of the things we want to do is have a homey store — like a mom-and-pop store back in the day,” said Marzette.
Part of that anachronistic approach is anticipating when a customer’s next visit will be and having their favorite items in stock.
“I know Mr. Ben, he likes tomatoes, for example,” said Marzette, naming a regular.
“A lot of people move through life thinking there is no one who cares about them, they’re solo, they are doing this solo, well you don’t have to be solo. There are small areas, pockets in the community. There are good people that actually want to see people flourish and do well in life. I think this is one of those corners," he added.