Metro Louisville

Independent grocery stores could be oases in the food desert affecting west Louisville neighborhoods.

That’s what some Black Louisvillians are betting on as they work to get their own stores up and running to serve an area of the city that has a high concentration of residents on low incomes, often without their own cars. For many west Louisville residents, neighborhood food shopping may be more likely at a dollar store than a grocery store.

Cassia Herron is the board chair for the Louisville Association for Community Economics. That group is working on a cooperative grocery store to serve the West End. It’s a project five years in the making.

“If it was easy to do, I would imagine that our local government leaders who have been saying that they are working on this issue for a long time would have done it already,” Herron said. “And so what we have become is our own sets of experts.”

The Louisville Community Grocery is now in the pre-development phase. Herron said they’re still working on a location, but they’re estimating the project could cost $6 to $7 million.

That’s why she’s hoping to get a big chunk of that funding from the city government. Earlier this year, Metro Council allocated $3.5 million in the form of a bond to support a community grocery project.

Herron said she believes that funding was intended for her project, and she’s willing to jump through hoops to get it.

“We’re not asking for Metro Council to blindly give us money. We’re not asking them to not ask us to report,” she said. “But what we are asking is for them to make an investment and make it easy for us to access those funds in an expeditious way, so that we can build the type of business that our community has been begging and that our community deserves.”

Council president David James (D-6) said he also thought the funding was meant for the Louisville Community Grocery. But he said some council members thought the project should require a formal application process. He said they’re working on clarifying that right now, but he’s in favor of Herron’s project.

“It would be OK to move ahead with the vetting process with them because, what I have seen from them, they have done their homework, and they have a good model on paper to make this work,” James said. “And so, you know, every day that we’re not moving forward with it is another day that someone is not around healthy food to eat.”

But while it’s still unclear as to whether the funding will end up with the Louisville Community Grocery, there are other efforts in west Louisville to increase food access.

Megan Bell is another entrepreneur hoping to offer healthy fresh foods and other goods at accessible price points. She’s starting up the Next Door Market in the Russell neighborhood, and plans to have a mobile grocery truck as well.

“I’m glad that it’s finally happening,” she said of the council allocation.

Bell said she doesn’t intend to apply for the council funding, but she thinks having community, locally-owned groceries in the neighborhoods is a positive sign.

“It’s better to have local people then try to bring in big corporations to do the job. Because … the community won’t respect it, they won’t feel like they’re cared about,” she said.

Bell is frustrated, however, that it took Metro Council so long to allocate funding towards west Louisville’s food needs. There’s been talk of the need for more grocery options in west Louisville for years, but it wasn’t until this year that the money was earmarked — while the city was consumed with protests for racial justice and council members were under pressure to demonstrate investment in the predominantly Black West End.

“I just hope they continue to do this,” Bell said. “Like, don’t just do it this one time, you know, really invest in that community.”

Council member Keisha Dorsey (D-3) represents an area including the small city of Shively. She said the West End isn’t the only area of Louisville lacking adequate grocery access. And she said the money doesn’t all have to go to a single project.

Regardless, it’s likely whatever grocery store — or stores — receives funding from the council will serve a majority-Black neighborhood. But Dorsey said that doesn’t mean it even starts to right the wrongs inflicted on Black Louisvillians.

“I don’t want to count this as a win in the column of what we did for Black people. It doesn’t get to count,” she said. “This is a win for the column of what we should be doing to ensure the basic needs are met for every citizen.”

She said the funds are in response to the ongoing protests in Louisville, and in response to the need for greater equity in the city.

But she said for Black people, it’s about more than groceries.

“There are things like grocery stores that are so basic that they transcend race, even though race is the argument because we’re still fighting as a race to be treated as human,” Dorsey said.

Dorsey said she will continue to keep the heat on Metro Council to take action against systemic racism. And she says people across the community will need to take action too, in order to make this moment a transformation and not just a transaction.

Correction: A previous version of this story mistakenly identified the LACE cooperative grocery as a nonprofit grocery store. While LACE is a nonprofit, the grocery store is not. A previous version also said Megan Bell would be open to applying for the funding, based on an interview with Bell. It’s now been updated to reflect that Bell doesn’t intend to apply.

Amina Elahi is WFPL's City Reporter.