Turning the Dial on Justice: South East Market
Alita Kelly is forging a new path in business, one that is hyper mission-centric and demonstrates the powerful impact small businesses can have on their communities.
Kelly, along with her business partner Khara DeWit, opened South East Market in January. The market is tucked into the corner of Hall and Kalamazoo, a distinct five-way intersection on the eastern edge of the 49507 zip code. The area is the most impoverished and underserved in Grand Rapids and has the most disparate health outcomes for residents compared to other zip codes.
South East Market is something of an oasis in what is otherwise considered a food desert. It is also a vehicle for Kelly’s benevolence. While increasing access to healthy, affordable food, the products are sourced from black, brown, indigenous, local or womxn-led farms and businesses.
“Our mission is to increase access to healthy, culturally approved affordable food through a sustainable and equitable lens,” Kelly said.
“I hope that we can build something that is sustainable and a solution. We are dreaming and hoping and putting a lot of work into something that hasn’t been done.”
Kelly describes becoming interested in nutrition due to her own health issues and responsibilities as a new mother. During her pregnancy, she was categorized as “high-risk,” and put on stroke and heart attack watch.
“I had been surviving on pizza rolls,” she said. “I had accepted that I was going to die in the hospital. That was a huge turning point for me. I started being more cognizant of what I was putting in my body so I could survive for my daughter.”
Kelly’s blossoming passion for food led her to work as nutrition program manager for Access of West Michigan D.A. Blodgett St. Johns Home. She pursued a degree in environmental science at the University of Michigan, where she learned about food insecurity. She spent her off-time diving into the food and grocer scene in Ann Arbor. All the while, she was dreaming about the South East Market.
“I’ve been laying the groundwork for this for years,” Kelly reflected.
While the COVID-19 pandemic stalled plans for many small businesses, it created an immediate need for the South East Market to open as quickly as possible.
“Knowing that our community is disproportionately affected by COVID and also has lack of access to nutrient-dense food, and we know that having a dietary related illness increases your chance of dying from COVID, it seemed like the obvious thing to do,” Kelly said.
Kelly and DeWit received a Rapid Loan from GROW as they prepared to open. At the time, Kelly said they were planning on wearing all of the hats, a common strategy of new business owners as they work toward maximizing profit before hiring help.
“We were planning on doing everything,” Kelly said, “And that isn’t sustainable. The loan from GROW empowered us to hire help, and now we have the most amazing staff. That Rapid loan was a huge part of us feeling settled in hiring people.”
Walking into the market, you immediately feel the sensation of being in a grocery store that is like no other in the city; you are at once stepping into the past (a thriving neighborhood grocery before the era of big-box stores) and the future (a fully equitable and sustainable for-profit business). The shelves serve as a stage for other local businesses to shine: Luxe Artisan Preserves, Robinson’s Popcorn, Soldadera Cold Brew, and more.
Kelly says the feedback from the community has been overwhelmingly positive.
“People are saying, ‘we needed this,'” she expressed with emotion. “The amount of support we have received has brought me to tears many times. An old man walked in the snow to donate a dollar because he believes in us. It’s just one dollar, but there is a lot loaded in that dollar.”
As they chart plans for growth, Kelly and DeWit are collaborating with the neighborhood and their customers through dialogue, something Kelly says is extremely important to them.
“We are constantly asking people what they need and for feedback,” she said. “We are not telling people, ‘this is what you need.”
For other business owners, Kelly advises maintaining a perspective of how you operate and how that makes people feel.
“If people feel like they are apart of something bigger than just buying your product, that is lasting.”