If Bloomington-Normal ever becomes home to a grocery cooperative that serves the needs of poor customers, credit, in part, may be due a small group of Illinois State graduate students.

Students from the Stevenson Center for Community and Economic Development released a 51-page report on Tuesday for the proposed Green Top Grocery Co-op called “Food Insecurity in Bloomington-Normal: How a Grocery Cooperative Might Help Meet the Needs of Low-Income Residents.”

The report was based on a study nine students conducted this semester to determine whether low-income people need or want better access to healthy food and whether a grocery co-op could meet those needs.

Many people interviewed by the students believed that healthy foods were too expensive and often inaccessible. When one Bloomington resident was asked about challenges her family faces in regard to food access, she said, “Money. We go shopping when we have money. It doesn’t matter what’s on sale if we don’t have money.”

The students said that based on the study the co-op has an opportunity to connect with low-income customers if it keeps prices low, if it is accessible to public buses, if it offers nutrition education programs, and if it builds up trust in the community, especially among Spanish-speaking residents.

“There are really basic things they could do,” Alex Trimble, a political science student, said.

The qualitative study did not use scientific sampling methods, so the results could not be generalized for the entire population. The students recommended the co-op further study the matter.

“This information could be very useful to us,” said interim co-op board member Melanie Shellito said. “We are really anxious to see the results of the study.”

The grocery store is still in its planning stages. The idea is to open a community store that would sell locally raised food and serve a diverse population in a socially responsible manner. Where it would be located and many other details, such as when it would open, have yet to be hashed out.

The students—graduate students studying economic, political science, or sociology—conducted the study as part of Associate Professor Joan Brehm’s Community Project Design and Management class.

Brehm said the point of the study was to give a voice to a segment of the population that might be interested in the co-op and to deal with concerns that this would be just another yuppie grocery store.

“I wanted to be supportive of what they’re trying to do,” she said.

There were three parts to the study. First, the students reviewed research literature related to food security and co-ops. Then they interviewed nine “key informants” from nonprofits and government agencies that serve low-income clients in order to develop questions to ask low-income individuals. And finally, they conducted focus groups involving 19 individuals.

One issue that cropped up was that many people were unfamiliar with co-ops.

“Many times we had to explain what a cooperative is,” said Raina Kirchner, an economics student. “So that may be an issue for Green Top.”

Kirchner said she wished they had more time to study the issue, but called the experience valuable because she learned about different methodologies.

“I have never done anything like this,” she said.

Jeff Koch, a political science student, said the study introduced him to how a co-op can be an important piece in equitably providing healthier food to people.

“The whole project opened my eyes to this whole issue in our society,” Koch said.

Shellito said the co-op will work to keep prices as low as possible while still running a functional business. She said the co-op may adopt an idea used by Common Grounds Food Co-op: The Urbana grocery sells 20 staple products at cost.

The next step for Green Top is having CDS Consulting conduct a study to determine the feasibility of five proposed sites in Bloomington-Normal, Shellito said.

Board members are hoping the feasibility study will increase support for the co-op. It currently has about 100 owners and would need five times that number in order to secure financing from a bank, Shellito said.

“We are in a holding pattern until we get owners,” she said.

Kevin Bersett can be reached at kdberse@ilstu.edu.