Massachusetts is a national leader in a lot of fields: energy efficiency, education and economic opportunities for LGBT individuals, to name just a few. But the state is close to the bottom—48th in the nation—when it comes to grocery store availability, with just one store for every 10,000 people.
That doesn’t sit well with Matt Gray.
“I’ve seen a lack of fresh produce in a lot of neighborhoods around Boston,” Gray explains. “Even in Winter Hill, where I live, there’s just a lack of access to fresh food.”
Gray wants to change that with Neighborhood Produce—a small-footprint corner store where he envisions selling fresh, locally sourced fruits and veggies. There are no shortage of independently owned convenience stores in Winter Hill, but as Gray points out, these shops tend to stock chips, soda, cigarettes and lottery tickets. About two years ago, as he strolled through the city, he had a thought: “Wouldn’t it be great if one of these small stores really focused on fresh produce rather than other items?”
An employee of the Greater Boston Food Bank, where he works in food acquisition, Gray had also noted the vast amount of produce that was discarded by grocery chains and big box stores because it was scratched, small, misshapen or otherwise marred. He refers to these less-than-perfect fruits and veggies as “produce as nature intended,” but their small scars and scabs mean they don’t make it to supermarket shelves and are instead made into animal feed—or worse, discarded.
Unsightly appearances aside, these items are generally perfectly fine to eat; in fact, recent research suggests they may actually be more nutritious than their shiny, unscathed counterparts. So Gray developed a plan to sell slightly dinged-up produce to the community at a lower price point. He piloted the concept at December’s Winter Hill Better Block Festival, where he says it got a great response from the community.
Now, Gray is laying the groundwork for Neighborhood Produce’s brick-and-mortar location. He launched a Kickstarter earlier this week to help raise the funds he’ll need for refrigerated storage, rent and initial inventory, and he’s already raised more than $6,000 towards his $20,000 goal. This summer, he’ll begin hosting popups on nights and weekends in the Winter Hill Brewing Company lot.
Neighborhood Produce won’t solely carry fruits and vegetables—though you won’t be able to get soda and chips there, either. Instead, the shelves will be stocked with the building blocks of healthy meals: bulk rice and beans, some dairy products, a few proteins. Ideally, shoppers will be able to walk or bike to the store and grab everything they’d need to make a balanced dinner that night.
“It’s not really a new idea at all,” Gray says, pointing to New York City’s bodegas and green grocers as a prime example of the practicality of this idea. “They really have access to fresh fruit and fresh produce in a way that you really don’t see around Boston.”
If all goes according to plan, Neighborhood Produce should be popping up at Winter Hill Brewing by mid-July, and Gray hopes that the physical location will be open by the end of 2016. If the model works in Winter Hill, he’d love to try bringing the program to other neighborhoods in Greater Boston that don’t have easy access to fresh, healthy foods. And while he says that’s a far-off goal, if the excitement he’s seen in his own community is any indication, it just might happen.
“There’s been a lot of people reaching out and showing their support,” Gray says. “People will just randomly email me and tell me that the idea is great, and they love the neighborhood and they would love to see something like this.”