At the end of September, our Gem City Market Cooperative held its fourth annual members meeting. An annual meeting is one of the things that sets a co-op apart from your typical store - and one of the primary ways a cooperative lives into its democratic form, giving our over 5000 member-owners a chance to exercise our power as the owners of the store. The AMM, as we call it, is one of my favorite days of the year. I love seeing Daytonians coming together to deepen our relationships, to vote on key issues, elect representatives on the governing board, and learn the state of our co-op.
At this year’s annual meeting, we shared many wins, points of pride, and details on how we’re doing. We reported that hundreds of shoppers are using our market each day, including about a quarter to a third using their SNAP/EBT benefits. We also shared that over 80% of our employees live within our trade area, with a management team that is majority women and people of color. We reported that sales grew 40% between winter and summer 2022 and held steady in the summer despite road construction. And we reported on a year of community partnership with over 30 organizations and hundreds of neighbors participating in programming that included cooking and nutrition classes in our teaching kitchen, free yoga and martial arts classes offered by neighbors, and children’s activities hosted by local artists.
We also reported on our challenges. As a cooperative, our community rightly holds Gem City Market to a higher standard of transparency and accountability. We opened during a historic economic upheaval that easily could have sunk a typical startup grocery store, and despite strong sales growth in 2022, we lost more than expected in our first year. It was tough for us as a community board to stand in front of our neighbors and say we didn’t do as well as expected, but we knew we had to report honestly and co-create the path forward.
Our discussion that evening also focused on the ongoing challenges and financial stress the Market faced in administering the WIC program. WIC is a federal program administered by the State of Ohio, which provides low-income mothers and their children an electronic voucher for certain select food items. Programs like WIC are core to the Market’s mission of food access, but we experienced serious problems administering WIC from day one, including challenges at the register getting our point of sale to recognize the products, and issues getting the right assortment of products that WIC vouchers cover. Only certain sizes and items are covered, and supply chain challenges meant we sometimes didn’t have the right products on our shelves.
Usage was also low, falling to just 1-2 WIC transactions a day, compared to well over 100 for SNAP/EBT. Over the course of a quarter of the year, we lost about $15,000 attempting to fix the issues. The Market is committed to serving low-income neighbors and families, so management knew that the Market needed to fix the issues to prevent losses like these that threaten our sustainability. Management made the tough decision to pause accepting WIC so that we could concentrate on solving these problems.
Before pausing WIC, our co-op Board and management met with key partners such as Public Health Dayton/Montgomery County, the Montgomery County Food Equity Coalition and other agencies serving new parents and babies, to look for solutions. City, County, and community leaders such as the Hall Hunger Initiative were quick to offer their help to try to solve issues by advocating with the state. Together with these partners, we are working on a plan to restart WIC as soon as we can properly administer it.
I and the elected Board members of GCM serve as representatives of all 5,000 community owners, as well as the future worker-owners. While day-to-day operational decisions are left to the experienced grocers managing the Market, we all take our role as the owners’ voice seriously. We know our community owners and stakeholders are deeply engaged in ensuring the Market’s financial sustainability while also serving our most vulnerable, lowest-income shoppers.
A recent study of our customer base showed that two-thirds of GCM’s customers are living in households below the area median income, with about 30% living below the poverty line. These are our owners, our customers, our neighbors, our fellow Board members. We all created the Gem City Market together to meet the needs of our community. Just last week, the Market offered a 50% off sale for all EBT transactions. And we know WIC serves an important group of our customers, so we are committed to fixing the issues that are preventing it from being successful.
I believe the Gem City Market is a catalyst for a more beloved community through emerging, deep, meaningful connection and purposeful membership. We encourage and appreciate the care, support and feedback the community has given the Market since we opened. For those who want to support our mission of food access by contributing to our SNAP/EBT match program, they can do so at gemcitymarket.com/donate. We will never promise that we won’t face challenges, but we can work to be transparent and collaborative when they arise. That is the cooperative way and we make the road by walking it.
Amaha Sellassie is the president of the Gem City Market Board of Directors.