Funding A Food Oasis: Long-awaited Grocery Store Gains Momentum

By Emma Dill, posted Apr 19, 2024
Cierra Washington, Northside Food Co-op’s executive director, is shown at one of the group’s free community dinners. (Photo by Daria Amaro)
After years of work, the Northside Food Cooperative is at a tipping point. 

When New Hanover County leaders approved a memorandum of understanding with the cooperative last month, it set in motion a process that could bridge the food desert that’s persisted on Wilmington’s Northside for the past 35 years. 

Cierra Washington, executive director of the Northside Food Co-op, underscored the value a grocery store could bring to the community when she addressed the county’s board of commissioners before its March 18 vote on the MOU. 

“Commissioners, you are at a pivotal moment to create food access and food system change,” she told them. “Your market will generate dozens of jobs, boost local producers and economies and, hopefully, pioneer a replicable business model that can be used across the nation.” 

That afternoon, Washington was joined by a handful of community members who had participated in earlier pushes for a grocery store on the Northside in the late-1990s and mid-2000s. 

“It was really beautiful because there were people who aren’t a part of the daily operations of the co-op now but who were very involved in the early days,” Washington said recently. “And some of them even got teary. They were like, ‘Man, it’s finally happening. This isn’t an idea anymore. Our work wasn’t for nothing, and our community’s gonna have a store.’

“It made the whole process feel a little deeper and a lot more important,” Washington added. 

With millions in committed funding from New Hanover County and the New Hanover Community Endowment, along with a land donation from the city of Wilmington, plans for the Northside Food Co-op’s grocery store are finally coming together.  

New Hanover County has started a search for a project architect, and the Northside Food Co-op plans to kick off community listening sessions next month, Washington said.
“We’re going to really gather what the community wants out of the store – the vibes and the vision they would like to see,” she said.

The group aims to complete the grocery store design by the end of the year, break ground on the store in spring 2025 and complete it by 2026.   


Wilmington’s Northside community has been without its own grocery store for roughly the past 35 years. 

The nonprofit Cape Fear Collective has developed a food hardship index to track food deserts in the Wilmington area and across the state. The index considers a range of variables, including household median income, vehicles per household and the childhood poverty rate, among others, to indicate how much of a food desert an area is, said Anna Casey, Cape Fear Collective’s lead data scientist. 

“Our food hardship index gives a number between zero and one that tells you how close something is to being food deserty,” she said. 

New Hanover County has the 10th-lowest food hardship rating compared to other North Carolina counties, according to the info, which was compiled using data from 2020. Several census tracts on Wilmington’s Northside, however, have index ratings in the top percentile in the state for food hardship, said Dante Haywood, Cape Fear Collective’s director of data science. 

Parts of the county with stronger socioeconomic conditions have helped buoy New Hanover County’s overall score, while the index in areas like the Northside continues to lag. 

“We’re always talking about how New Hanover County is sort of a tale of two cities,” Casey added. “There’s always this like the coast versus like the north and south side of Wilmington.” 

Haywood said a lack of past investment in the Northside has contributed to the area’s current conditions. 

“This challenge of food hardship is one that has brought itself about because there hasn’t really been that investment to get a grocery store or other healthy foods into the community,” Haywood said. “While we are investing into the grocery store, we still have to address the factors that led to this food hardship as a community.”  


The Northside Food Cooperative formed in 2017 under the leadership of former project manager Evan Folds. Washington came on board in 2019 and became the group’s project manager in 2022. She recently took on the title of executive director. 
While working toward the Northside store, the group has intentionally aimed to engage the neighborhood’s residents by hosting a weekly farmers market and community dinners twice a month. Washington said the events help give residents access to the fresh food they need and build relationships.

“I think at the core of everything we do is trying to be relational and trying to be personal and trying to be transparent,” she said, “and doing with community rather than for community.” 

In 2022, New Hanover County leaders identified funding the design and construction of a Northside grocery store as one of several initiatives to address community violence. Wilmington leaders donated land for the store at 900 N. 10th St. the same year. 

Since then, the estimated cost of the store’s design and construction has climbed by millions of dollars, to more than $9 million. In addition to the $2.45 million budgeted by the county, the New Hanover Community Endowment has stepped in to fill the funding gap. 

In February, endowment officials announced a $6.8 million investment in the project. The county has also committed to subsidizing cash flow deficits in the store’s first five years of operation, up to $1.55 million.  

“We believe this operational support is necessary to put the store in the best possible position for long-term success. Starting up a new business in an industry usually results in early losses,” said Eric Credle, the county’s chief financial officer. “We believe that will be the case also with this grocery store, which is in an industry that operates on thin margins.
“After several years, it is anticipated that the store will gain traction and will optimize its operations in a way to approach break-even.” 

The county will own the grocery store and the surrounding lot and lease the store to the cooperative for $1 each year, while the cooperative will be tasked with hiring people to run the store and maintaining its equipment and inventory. 

The Northside Food Co-op partnership with New Hanover County is rare in the cooperative world, said Heather Lazickas, a project partner with the consulting team, seven roots, that will help provide design and operational expertise. 

“It is not common to see this level of partnership and dedication,” Lazickas said. “It’s something that is being watched throughout the co-op industry, the startup industry in particular, as a model for what could be successful for other communities across the country.”  


With funding in place and land secured, the Northside Food Co-op is gearing up for its community listening sessions, which will take place from May through November, Washington said. 

Seven roots will work closely with the selected architect to help design the grocery store’s layout and operations. A smaller cooperative store has different needs than a larger chain, Lazickas said. 

Joel Kopischke, another project partner from seven roots, said the first years of the store’s operations are expected to be difficult.    

“If some big corporation thought they could make money by putting a grocery store in the neighborhood, they would, and that’s part of the challenge,” he said. “We know the economics will be challenging in part because someone with bigger systems with more leeway in their budgets is choosing not to do it.”  

“It’s an industry that’s known for being tough to do well and get right,” Lazickas added, “and that’s particularly true when you’re doing it fresh out of the gate.”  

That’s why community buy-in and engagement are key in the months and years leading up to the new store’s opening. 

“It’s critically important that folks in the community follow along and provide input into what they want to see. It helps to set the store up for success long term,” Lazickas said. “The project is not done, just awaiting the building. This is the beginning.”
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