Shopping and Sharing in Fairbanks

By Kris Capps | December 05, 2016
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The Community Comes Together to Pay-it-Forward

A community co-op market and an organization that provides safe housing in Fairbanks are promoting healthy eating for families by “paying-it-forward” in an innovative way. The Co-op Market Grocery & Deli and the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation (AHFC) may seem like an odd pair, but in this case, it’s the perfect partnership.

The new program, which began October 1st, is called Shop & Share. It’s a no-pressure, totally volunteer way for shoppers at the Coop Market to help other members of their community. What better way to provide support for families than by providing healthy food?

How does it work?

While checking out, shoppers can additionally purchase any of seven specific items. The items are all basic building blocks for a nutritious diet and include: one dozen organic eggs, one pound ground turkey, a 24-ounce container of plain organic yogurt, bags of organic broccoli or blueberries, or a serving of healthy soup from the deli. Shoppers just select the items they wish to donate and the price is added to their bill.

Vouchers are then created for each item and handed over to the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation. That organization identifies families who will cash in the vouchers at the Co-op Market and enjoy the benefits of healthy food.

Families are selected through AHFC’s JumpStart program. These are primarily families in the rental assistance program who are moving toward becoming self-sufficient. The co-op itself does not select voucher recipients.

“I know they work with families struggling to get enough food,” said Kristin Summerlin, marketing and owner services manager for the Co-op Market Grocery & Deli. Sadly, she pointed out, too many people have to choose between paying for food or paying for power at the end of every month.

“That’s one of the great things about being a co-op,” she said. “We’re not just a store. We’re also a member of the community.”

The neighborhood where the co-op is located is an unusual spot for a grocery store like this, because many nearby residents can’t afford to shop there. “We wanted to locate downtown because it was considered a ‘food desert,’ “ said Mary Christensen, Co-op Market general manager.

“Opening the store put good food within distance, but not necessarily within reach of everyone’s pocketbook. Shop & Share will help us serve our neighbors who sometimes have trouble making ends meet.”

The new program invites those people in, and provides a direct link between neighbors.

“I think that’s part of our mission, to provide good healthy food for everyone in the community,” said Summerlin.

The customers who donate remain anonymous. It’s easy and it’s satisfying, according to Summerlin. She described it as almost like handing a bag of fruit to someone who really needs it and “at the same time, you’re getting good food for yourself,” she added.

Early on, Summerlin predicted that community enthusiasm would easily make the program successful. She was right. In just the first three days, 20 of those nutritious items were sold and vouchers were already destined for families in need.

Yet Summerlin remains focused on the bigger picture. She’s already looking ahead at the all the good things that will happen when kids in the co-op community learn to eat healthy foods. She also hopes that in the future the co-op can offer classes for participating families.

“It would be nice to offer some basics, like how to shop the co-op on a budget and how to use foods that may be unfamiliar,” she said.

“I’m excited about it,” she added. “It’s a really nice fit for the neighborhood.”

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