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  • Writer's pictureKamille D. Whittaker

The Blueprint: The Boxcar Grocer

Updated: May 13, 2018

Although The Boxcar Grocer has closed its doors, Alison and Alphonzo Cross's shared insights about the responsibility behind being the neighborhood grocer are timeless lessons for the next time around.

Consider The Boxcar Grocer, the “neighborhood corner store,” remixed. It’s a sustainable living and wellness undertaking both in concept and exhibition, purposed as a stopping point along the ongoing narrative of African Americans attempting to “return to the source.” As it happens, the ‘source’ can be many things – and sibling duo Alison and Alphonzo Cross had good food, engaging vibes and thriving community top of mind for the geo-social hub of downtown Atlanta’s Castleberry Hill, West End and Mechanicsville offshoots. Alison weighs in on the nuts and bolts.

The Methodology By shortening the supply train and working directly with local farms, we are changing what it means to make healthy food accessible — especially to urban communities previously lacking the availability of choice. Our engagement with local farmers and our surrounding neighborhoods allows The Boxcar Grocer to be the connection that is sorely needed in many communities across America. It allows our communities to reclaim health by making it easier to make the right choices. Locating local farmers has been a discovery process — we thought we’d be dealing with rural farms — so to find such well-established urban farms as Truly Living Well, Metro Atlanta Urban Farm, HABESHA, and Patchwork City Farms right here in the inner city has been incredible. It’s allowed us to tap their network of supporters and access a knowledge base that is helping us learn about organic farm operations.

The Theme The railroad theme that runs deeply through The Boxcar Grocer concept is rooted in the fact that trains are great connectors. They are a fact of modern society that can be appreciated by all ages, ethnicities and genders. We were deeply inspired by the courageousness of people such as A. Philip Randolph and his organizing of the Pullman Porters. Reclaiming one’s dignity was an uphill battle back then but one that solidified a position of pride for many men who were once treated without respect for their work and their lives.

The Dialogue What a largely affluent food movement seems to be lacking is any conversation around the radically different historical connections to food and farming that our different communities have. People think they can just hang a sign outside that says “farm fresh food” and black people will come running. People think that putting up pictures of farms or advertising in a way that evokes “old time-y” folks hanging around a cow and having fun on the farm is going to somehow engage people of color to eat better or feel as though all these discussions that people are having around, above, and behind our backs is really about us. To successfully integrate all our voices into the dialogue about health, organic food, and farming, it takes understanding where we’ve been, what we’ve been through, and how we can heal our memories around farming.

The Harvest POP Food is our latest addition to The Boxcar Grocer. It is our version of an indoor farmers market. Part food court, part pop-up restaurant. It started with us questioning how we could offer a wider variety of food and involve as many other businesses as possible. We took the experience of the outdoor farmers market — different vendors, rotating schedules, surprises — and brought it inside. A rotating team of vendors will be selling directly from stalls in the store, very similar to a farmers market. But what farmers market brings you Wi-Fi? What farmers market has beautiful farm tables for you to sit and peacefully enjoy your food while grabbing a cup of tea or coffee inside. More importantly, what farmers market is downtown, with free parking, and open every day?

The Root We were taught to value land. From a very young age our dad instilled in us an understanding of what owning land meant, what it allows you to do, and why you should always try to keep it. More than anything, the way he taught us to value land means responsibility: to the land itself, to any people who may be on the land, to maintaining the land so it is there to pass to the next generation. Valuing land, in its deepest, most essential way, means valuing life. And right now, more than ever, valuing life means valuing the food and the food systems that support our nurturing. Healthy food and clean water are the hub of any successful community. America has, in 1.5 generations, become less successful of a community overall from a health perspective. The major illnesses plaguing this country can be traced directly to deficiencies in our current food system, so we decided to address it. -- Kamille D. Whittaker


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