Fueling the future she wants to see: A Q&A with South East Market founder Alita Kelly

“If you don’t know what regenerative farming is, how can you advocate for it? That’s not being taught in public schools,” says Alita Kelly, founder of the South East Market. This is just one topic Kelly feels could be discussed within the community, if people were exposed to it. “The store is going to be a cultural hub where we can have those conversations,” she says.

With their soft launch underway, the South East Market is steadily gaining momentum within the community. Kelly shares her insights on how the Market is developing, their focus on highlighting diverse vendors, and her hopes for what is to come.

Rapid Growth: The Market has been open for a few weeks now. How have things been going?

Alita Kelly: We’re not currently open to the public. We’re working with 30 families/individuals who we’re calling our South East Tribe. They are an initial cohort of customers that have made a financial commitment to shop with us and spend at least $50 a week from our soft launch day, which was Oct. 11, until the end of this year. 

The primary reason why we’re not open to the public quite yet is [that] we are still working on being approved to carry out Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)/Bridge Card transactions. That is an entire process within itself. Before we can apply for that, we had to have a food and retail license. Before we could get a food and retail license, we needed a location. So we’re just going through and checking all [of] the boxes so we can do what we’re really passionate about, which is [to] provide healthy food to people in the neighborhood that are financially challenged.

RG: Can you explain the “pay-it-forward” model within the Market?

AK: We have an option to pay-it-forward. You are not bound to pay-it-forward but if you’d like, you can donate money to our pay-it-forward fund. That is a pot of money where we can help offset [the cost of] some of our higher-end, higher-priced items for our neighbors.

Let’s say someone from the neighborhood wants to buy some ground beef and we have a lower-quality, less expensive, accessible ground beef. Then we have our grass-fed beef. If they pick out this lower-end ground beef, we have the opportunity to say, ‘hey, have you ever had grass-fed beef.’ And there’s an opportunity to provide some education on why grass-fed beef is healthier for you and...for our planet. [Then] we can use the pay-it-forward fund to make up for the difference of the lower-end beef and the grass-fed beef. [So the person] can still have access to the better product but at the lower price.

We’ve been open for less than three weeks and already have $500 in the pay-it-forward fund. The price difference between the lower-end and the grass-fed beef is probably about $2 per pound. Just think, that $500 can go a long way with the types of products we’ll be able to get into people’s homes [who] haven’t had access to local or organic food.

We’re really excited to bridge the gap and be a vessel to do that work because it’s really something that is empowered by the community. The energy rests on the community coming in and supporting the rest of the community.

RG: As you look to source items, you have a focus on working with minority-owned businesses and people of color. How has it been to find those individuals and resources? 

AK: We are very limited with the amount of priority vendors that are available in West Michigan. For priority vendors, I’m referring to those brown, Black, and women-led farms and businesses. We’re limited right out of the gate, but that doesn’t change that that [focus] is our mission. What we’re doing is centering our operations around those businesses. 

For example, we’re getting started with [putting together] produce bundles every week. [The bundles are] seasonal [and] most of it is local. We’ve been working primarily with Groundswell, which is run by Bruce-Michael [Wilson], who is a Black farmer in Zeeland and supplementing whatever he may not have from other farms.

What we’re saying is that we’re centering those vendors, lifting them up, and highlighting them because they have unique challenges in the industry, in business, and in farming. We’re also telling their stories and the unique challenges that they have. And it helps our customers to feel better if they’re spending more on produce. They feel the sacredness of all of the things that had to come together for us to get that product.

RG: Have there been any additional challenges to sourcing in response to COVID?

AK: I would love to go out and be meeting more of the people that are owning these businesses and running these farms but it seems like it’s not the most responsible thing to do, to be truly embedded in that networking. We’re just taking it a day at a time.

Also, Khara, my business partner, and I are both mothers. We’ve been home-schooling our kids or doing virtual learning. So navigating growing a business while we’re taking care of our children, that has been hard and an additional struggle because of COVID.

RG: On your website, it says that you’re passionate about food sovereignty. Can you elaborate on what specifically that means to you and how it motivates your work?

AK: Food sovereignty refers to people’s input in their food policy and their food system. For me, I want the food system, food businesses, and farms to be representative of who makes up this country, who has brought some agricultural knowledge, and put in all the work building this country. And it’s not just about what I want [it] to look like, it’s about what do our neighbors want it to look like.

Black people were brought here against our will. We brought all of farming understanding and knowledge but we do not own land. Why it’s important that we are building up Black farmers, Black, women-led, and brown businesses, is because we’re seeing the dispossession of land. We’re seeing Black businesses closing and communities be financially challenged as a direct result from systemic racism and oppression. Food sovereignty to me looks like shifting the food culture to be more inclusive and representative. 

Right now, we have 1.3% of farms that are led by Black or brown people, which is a dramatic decrease from the beginning of the 19th century [when] 1 in 7 farms was owned and led by people of color. In order to stop that statistic from getting even more treacherous, we [have] to do something different. In order to work towards food justice, that’s something [that] we need to do.

In order for us to truly advocate for what we want our food system to look like, we have to know the different nuances that exist. The store is one way where we have tangible items to work with and consider to push this agenda forward. And by agenda, I mean people deciding what their food system looks like.

RG: How can people or organizations get involved?

AK: It all hinges on participation. We’ve had a few entities and individuals who are interested in sponsoring families. What they’ll do is, instead of paying it forward and making up the difference, they’re going ahead and paying for families in our neighborhood to have their groceries paid for for several weeks. [These people] have just reached out to me but we’ll be working on [creating a system] to capture these requests.

[For vendors], they can reach out to me by email and we have a contact form on our website where they can submit their information.

RG: As you look forward, what are your hopes for the Market and the community?

AK: I hope that we can uncover some of the vulnerabilities in the food system and work together to vote with our dollars to support the food future that we all want to see as it pertains to social and environmental justice.

RG: What call-to-action would you issue and why?

AK: I would encourage people to start asking questions about where their food comes from and if that’s something that they want to be a part of. And if the system behind their food is something they want to be a part of. If not, move your energy and move your dollars that you’re spending on your food to something that supports the future you want to see. 

About Leandra Nisbet: Leandra Nisbet, Owner of Stingray Advisory Group LLC and Co-Owner of Brightwork Marine LLC, has over 15 years of experience in leadership, sales & marketing, and graphic design. She helps businesses grow and assists with: strategic planning, marketing concept development/implementation, risk management, and financial organization. She is actively involved in the community, sitting on several Boards and committees, and has been recognized as one of the 40 Under 40 Business Leaders in Grand Rapids.

Contact Leandra Nisbet by email at [email protected]!

Photos by Kristina Bird of Bird + Bird Studio.