May 5, 2015
There was no way Michele Speaks-March was going to sell chips and soda in her Apples and Oranges Fresh Market, a grocery store she and her husband Erich opened in the North Avenue area of Baltimore in 2013. Her vision was to provide fresh, healthy food to an underserved community, not function as just another corner store that happened to also sell fresh produce. Two years later, her store was no longer in business.
Growing up, Michele’s great-grandmother used to say, “If I don’t know who fed it, I’m not going to eat it.” That was how Michele got her taste for food. Nutritious, wholesome, local—this is what she thought everyone wanted, or at least deserved; however, some Baltimore residents did not have access to these healthy options, even if they had wanted them. She wanted to give them that opportunity.
The market was developed on the corner of North Avenue and Broadway, where a Sears department store once stood. With 6,000 square-feet of space and a parking lot, the building had been left vacant for 20 years. To Michele, this real estate was an opportunity to address the inequity of the food landscape in the local community. Her vision was to offer healthy, fresh food to the residents, but also to go beyond being just another food store by providing resources such as cooking classes to educate shoppers on how to eat healthier through really engaging them. After two years of construction and planning, Apples and Oranges Fresh Market opened to much enthusiasm; yet, she quickly realized something was wrong. Customers weren’t buying her produce.
When questioned, her customers reported that the items were too expensive or they replied skeptically, “This is a Whole Foods in the ghetto.” On principle, the market didn’t sell soda, cigarettes, or fried food. In retrospect, Michele candidly conceded, “they were telling me [what they wanted], but I pushed back. And I lost.” Her customers wanted the highly processed items, the ready meals, and the fried foods. Michele began to understand these items were a source of comfort for many. She also realized some of her presumptions were off. For example, her assumption that most households have a pot and a stove turned out to be wrong; in reality, the homes that her customers live in might have a microwave.
She believed it was too easy for parents to purchase unhealthy foods for their children, and she lamented, “children are led down a road before they ever get to make decisions for themselves.” Interestingly, mothers receiving WIC benefits were some of her best customers. In a way, her store was similar to that program by stipulating healthy foods, whereas the SNAP program does not. Michele, like many others, believes there’s a conversation to be had about limiting SNAP benefits to healthier foods for the sake of all U.S. citizens.
Creating behavior change is difficult, but it is especially frustrating when it seems you’ve given a community what it had been asking for, engaged it in the process, yet the services go unused. “I believed if we gave people good options, they would take them.” She recalled viewing the space romantically, and supposed her idea may have been implemented before its time. Despite the Marches’ best intentions, Apples and Oranges was not a sustainable business operation and they reluctantly made the decision to close.
We had the opportunity to speak with Michele about her experience when she visited us at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, which seemed even more significant given the current state of unrest in Baltimore city. Her husband recalled how the North Avenue area had lost its grocery stores after the 1968 riots following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. With the exception of their venture, those area markets never returned, which he believed left the community with a taste for fast food and convenience items.
There are many lessons we can learn from Michele’s experience, but her gumption to stay true to her beliefs is certainly admirable. “Good value” can be interpreted as a good value for the money paid for an item, or as an indication of the principles held by someone. It would seem that the values Michele held dear in creating her store were ultimately at odds with some of the shoppers. By providing access to fresh, healthy options, she was also restricting some other choices.
Michele expressed how much she learned over the two and a half years she spent with her “boots on the ground,” listening to the voices in the community. From her experience, she provided a few recommendations for others interested in similar endeavors. Apples and Oranges was created as an LLC, but she wished she had operated as a non-profit instead: “We just wanted to pay the bills and keep it going.” She also emphasized the importance of utilizing partnerships, like with the local government and non-profit community, as the issues of food insecurity cannot be solved by any one of these entities alone. Each has resources that benefit the others, and this collaboration could lead to success. Hopefully, we can join the conversation.