How This Michigan-Based Grocery Store is Bringing Healthy Food to Vulnerable Communities

Alita Kelly opened the South East Market during the pandemic to provide her community with healthy food choices.

What inspired you to start the South East Market?

I live in Grand Rapids Michigan in this neighborhood that could be called a food desert. But I try to get away from that term, because deserts are thriving ecosystems. The reason why there's not adequate, healthy, culturally appropriate food in communities like mine is an intentional result of systems in place that disregard people of color and people that have financial obstacles. So I use the word food apartheid because it speaks to the systems in place that intentionally separate our communities from healthy food. I live one house away from the home that my grandmother and great-grandmother died in from dietary-related illness. So this attempt, or this project of South East Market, is really me reckoning with the intergenerational issues within my family—issues that are not unique to my family, but very rampant in communities like mine, primarily made up of people of color and low-wealth white folk. When we were seeing all of the negative statistics around the connection between COVID and dietary-related illnesses, I realized my community was at a higher risk of fatality because we didn't have access to healthy food. So I started a GoFundMe in August 2020, and we were open to the public on January 18, MLK Day, of this year.

Health-Print-Dec-2021-This-Grocery-Store-Founder-Is-On-a-Mission-To-End-Food-Apartheid-Alita Kelly

Where does your food come from?

We source first from our priority vendors, which are Black-, Brown-, Indigenous-, female-led, and local businesses and farms. While we're able to grow a lot of different types of food here, we're still not going to have bananas or mangoes. And those are healthy things people should eat. So we supplement with conventional farms.

How do you reach the most vulnerable groups in your area?

When people are at the register, we encourage them to round up their purchase total as part of our Pay It Forward program. Those dollars, along with money from donors, allow us to sell our local pastured meat at cost, reduce the price of our produce, and offer free delivery to everyone in the 49507 zip code. We also have our Soul-to-Soul produce subscriptions, which are gifted produce orders donated to women and their children in transitional housing, as well as elders and people with disabilities who are financially challenged.

How has the market affected your daughter's life?

She's definitely healthier than I was at 10. She loves Brussels sprouts, for example, and that's only because she's had access to them. She's also downloading what it looks like to have female leadership by seeing my business partner, Khara DeWit, who is an Asian American woman, and me work together. And she's had a front-row seat to Black Girl Magic. The way that she talks about the future and what she thinks is possible for her is really inspiring.

This article originally appeared in the December 2021 issue of Health Magazine. Click here to subscribe today!

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