St. Thomas student Parker Hewes (left) stands with DeDe Fuller and Adam Pruitt, two high school students who work for Brightside Produce.

St. Thomas, Community Work Together to Bring Fresh Produce to North Minneapolis Corner Stores

The problem: Convenience stores in north Minneapolis don’t sell that much produce, so they can’t buy it in bulk at affordable prices. Instead they’re forced to buy produce retail and increase the prices in their own stores, essentially leaving consumers paying more money for lower quality produce.

The solution: Brightside Produce, a collaboration between University of St. Thomas students and biology associate professor Adam Kay, Community Table – a Minneapolis nonprofit that supports entrepreneurs that contribute to a local food system – and convenience store owners. Brightside delivers wholesale, high-quality produce to convenience stores in the quantities and prices they need, and the leftovers each week fuel a CSA-style offering at St. Thomas, where students, faculty and staff buy all the extra produce in $3, $5 and $10 packages.

“To our knowledge it’s the first economically sustainable model for distributing low-cost, fresh produce to corner stores,” Kay said. “I think we’re really onto something.”

Growing problem

In 2008 Minneapolis became the country’s first city to enact a Staple Foods Ordinance, which required licensed grocery stores to have certain levels of quality produce available for purchase at all times. Minneapolis increased those requirements last year, and in April 2016 they will be enforced.

That increased urgency spurred Kay and 2015 environmental studies graduate Carly Dent to re-examine the problem last spring. They were connected with Community Table, who had the idea of renting out space in corner stores and selling produce there. Brightside Produce grew out of this idea and featured Dent – supported by a St. Thomas grant – working with local youth to buy produce wholesale and begin distributing it to six north Minneapolis stores using a Biology Department vehicle.

Kay was soon left with the leftover produce, which, one day, literally stacked up in his office. A colleague offered to buy some from him, and that snowballed into the UST Buyers Club. Today, about 60 Tommies are signed up to buy packages each week and – most importantly – close the loop on an entire model of business that is sustainable.

“In general it’s a complex model, but the pieces are all necessary to get the system to work,” Kay said. “The delivery system alone isn’t economically viable. And a CSA at St. Thomas would have no purpose without that connection to an external program. Everything makes sense if they’re all connected.”

Group effort

Junior Emma Button stepped into the role of business manager last fall, helping with everything from store feedback and delivery coordination, to the development of potential new aspects of Brightside Produce, such as sidewalk carts and placement at a farmer’s market in Minneapolis. Like Dent before her, she’s working full time this summer through a grant from St. Thomas to help this project continue to grow.

“Working with Brightside has been one of the most challenging, and empowering, things I’ve done at St. Thomas,” Button said. “There are times where it’s so easy to get bogged down in all the chaotic emails; there’s always something going on we have to fix. But the times where I can step back and look at the bigger picture of what we’re doing … it has been really worth it.”

A work study award allows St. Thomas student Parker Hewes to be paid to drive the delivery vehicle, and he goes with two 17-year-old entrepreneurs – who are in charge of working with store owners – to deliver. Those store owners’ feedback helped inform a video Brightside Produce made last year.

“It’s fair for everyone, and no one feels like they’re getting a handout,” Kay said. “It’s that link between the community and an institution that allows this to work.”

Others already are taking notice of just how well it has worked: Button said Brightside Produce took third place in last year’s Fowler Business Concept Challenge, and Kay said the project has made it to the finals of the Aspen Ideas Festival.

“We’ve been getting some really good feedback,” Kay said.

Next steps

Brightside Produce now delivers to 14 stores, and had a delivery all 52 weeks last year, including Dec. 26 and Jan. 2. Kay said the Minneapolis Health Department estimates  60-70 more stores in Minneapolis could use this service, and some 270 stores will be affected by the new Staple Foods Ordinance.

“We’re working every day to figure out how we can scale this up, get more people from St. Thomas involved, get more youth involved,” Kay said. “Our main fundraising effort at this point is another vehicle, and if we could get that I think we could scale up right away.”

Kay said Brightside is looking for more academic partners at St. Thomas as well; about 40 students already are involved through communication journalism, English and social work classes. Everyone can say they’re part of something big  and getting bigger.

“I would like to hand it off to someone, have it be in good shape … and have them be similarly empowered and challenged,” Button said. “I hope that it’s something that will continue for a really long time.”