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A food blog from NHPR news, digital, & programming staff, exploring food & food culture around the state & the New England region. On-air features air Thursdays on All Things Considered and Saturdays during Weekend Edition.

Foodstuffs: Manchester Food Co-op to Open... in Bedford

Sam Evans-Brown

Creating a food co-op is a labor of love.

“It’s your neighbor who’s the farmer. It's your community, you own it,” says Sarah-Marie Cole, president of the Manchester Food Co-op's board, “It's all the good feel-good things about the community.”

When the Manchester Food Co-op was proposed in 2009, the idea was to bring a store that sold fresh, healthy food into a place that is what's known as a food desert – as in nothing for miles around except convenience stores selling ho-hos. Now, the Manchester Food Co-op is planning a grand opening this year after nearly seven years of planning and fundraising.

“Building a co-op is a big... it's a huge long process,” says Carla Ferrara, the co-op's Secretary. She says it took years of planning and outreach to attract 1,000 members putting in $100 each to get the project started. “From then on we were looking at locations and doing all these feasibility studies,” she says.

But Manchester is a crowded town, and the co-op was struggling to find a location with parking, with good exposure, reasonable rent. But after a year and a half of looking they found this one spot.

“It's just an incredible opportunity,” Ferrara remembers, “and we were thinking... hmm this seems too good to be true.”

Another grocery store, Harvest Market, wanted out of the business.  The rent per square foot was only a third of some downtown Manchester locations, and much of the equipment they would need – coolers, freezers, lobster tanks, and pizza ovens – were in place already.

There’s just one problem, and for something called the Manchester Food Co-op it's a big one: the site is in Bedford.

“I was stunned. I felt betrayed. I felt that I had been sold a bill of goods,” says Diane Bolduc, a co-op member who signed up about a year ago.

“I just think it was a poor location to have it out of town like that,” says Denis Hebert, a retiree who introduces himself as member number #878.

“I've asked the co-op to refund my membership and they've kindly agreed to do that,” says Sal Steven Hubbard, who signed up five years ago, and graciously acknowledges “I know folks have worked really really hard… but it’s not what I would have hoped for.”

While some members on social media were simply excited that the co-op had found a location, these three were not. Even though the co-op location is just over the border into Bedford, the idea of a 15 minute drive along route 101 was just not appealing to them.

Sarah-Marie Cole says she understands the disappointment, but it was just too good a deal to pass up. The amount of fundraising they'd have to do could be cut from $2 or $4 million down to $1 million, and the spreadsheets estimate they could be profitable in three years, instead of seven or eight.

So they went for it. She believes the terms of the lease mean the co-op will be in a good place to expand. “This is number one,” Cole explains, “This is the mothership that will that will support a store in Manchester that may not be as profitable, this store helps that happen.”

So co-op members from Manchester hoping to see an oasis in the downtown "food desert" will have to wait at least a few more years.

Sam Evans-Brown has been working for New Hampshire Public Radio since 2010, when he began as a freelancer. He shifted gears in 2016 and began producing Outside/In, a podcast and radio show about “the natural world and how we use it.” His work has won him several awards, including two regional Edward R. Murrow awards, one national Murrow, and the Overseas Press Club of America's award for best environmental reporting in any medium. He studied Politics and Spanish at Bates College, and before reporting was variously employed as a Spanish teacher, farmer, bicycle mechanic, ski coach, research assistant, a wilderness trip leader and a technical supporter.

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