Brightside Produce: A Sustainable and Self-Funding Business Model to Eliminate Food Deserts
Climate change and its effects can be a bitter pill to swallow. There are so many issues that need to be addressed, including the elimination of food deserts and food swamps. Food deserts are areas where access to affordable, healthy food options, like fruits and veggies, is limited or nonexistent. According to DoSomething.org, nearly 23.5 million Americans currently live in food deserts. But organizations like Brightside Produce (based out of Minneapolis, Minnesota) are working to combat this problem. Brightside Produce’s mission is to “eliminate food deserts in urban areas by bridging communities through people and produce.” They are an economically sustainable and self-funding business model, designed to make fresh produce more available in low-income urban neighborhoods.
Many stores in low-income neighborhoods are not able to purchase fresh produce due to high distribution minimums. It is just not a viable option. Because of this, corner store owners are forced to buy produce from a local grocery store and then resell the produce at a higher price. This process takes time and money, and forces vendors to sell secondhand produce at higher prices–a challenging sales environment. A recent collaboration between the University of St. Thomas and the Community Table Co-op local youth has changed that, providing fresh fruits and vegetables to local corner stores in Minneapolis.
The day-to-day operations are carried out by university volunteers and paid local youth workers. Each week, student volunteers and local youth make deliveries of wholesale and local produce to between 20 and 25 local corner stores. The Brightside team buys cases of produce from a wholesale distributor. Items include fifteen to twenty varieties of common fruits and vegetables like bananas, apples, and oranges. The team then goes to small stores and presents a display of the available items. Store owners order whatever amount they like and pay in cash. The youth workers are in charge of all interactions with store owners. University students are just there to serve as support. Small corner stores can sometimes be a tough sales environment and store owners are unlikely to participate in programs that they feel are imposed on them from outside the community.
This is a huge stride in the effort to eliminate food deserts in Minneapolis but Brightside’s major innovation, and what allows them to operate without external grant funding, is what they do with their excess. Following the delivery run, there are always several partial cases of leftover produce that did not sell to the corner stores. Brightside bundles this produce into $3, $5, and $10 packages and sells them to university students, faculty, and community members. This way there are no leftovers and no waste. The revenue generated from this and from the store sales pays for all produce costs and provides a $15/hour wage to the youth employees.
I asked Jadea, who is a Brightside team member, why she wanted to get involved with Brightside on campus. She wrote to me in response, “BrightSide seems perfect to me, and inspiring and socially and economically radical but I’ve found that you can’t truly feel just how perfect and inspiring and socially and economically radical it is until you’ve gone through the journey yourself — from venturing into a wholesale produce distribution center (what a world) for a box of fruit all the way to walking a woman and her once-inaccessible bag of greens and fruit down the street and to her door. Being involved in the farmstand project particularly exposed me to corporate spaces, geographies, and most impactful, people and lifestyles that exist every day within the structures that influence issues we often condense into eloquent phrases like ‘food insecurity.’ There is so much pain and life and fire and passion in the humans that keep BrightSide alive and those are the things that keep me involved. To me, BrightSide isn’t simply an ‘organization’ or a ‘solution’ to a ‘social issue,’ but the symptom of a greater cultural movement.”
Brightside Produce is a perfect example of an extraordinary business working towards the greater good of underresourced communities and to help them thrive and grow towards healthier choices. This small business recently opened another branch in the San Diego area, working with five corner stores in collaboration with San Diego State University. Brightside’s self-funding model has the potential to spread throughout the country.
This piece is part of a series written by college undergraduates enrolled in off-campus study programs through the Higher Education Consortium for Urban Affairs (HECUA). HECUA programs offer students a chance to think deeply about the issues that matter most, and we’d like to share a piece of that experience with you. Every student post on the HECUA Medium page considers a theory or reading that intersects with that student’s lived experience. For more information about HECUA programs, click here.