EVANSVILLE, Ind. (Mennonite Mission Network) – Baskets of produce, oyster mushrooms, organic sodas and chickens in the city all come together at the River City Food Co-op in Evansville, Ind., where customers gather to buy, chat, exchange recipes and check out the newest projects.
“We wanted natural foods without having to drive two hours, pack three ice coolers and pay $300 to get them,” said John Eads.
In the process, the new market has become not only a natural foods source, but has also helped to transform the surrounding neighborhood.
With his wife, Leah, Eads is completing his third year in Evansville through Mennonite Voluntary Service, a service program of Mennonite Mission Network. The idea for the co-op originated during Eads’ first year of service through conversations and neighborhood listening meetings. He picked up the project and decided to use an additional year of MVS to tend this growing experiment.
It began in a 250-square-foot back room in the big, white MVS house. With several friends, Eads built shelves, bulk bins and even a produce cooling system. By November 2005, River City Food Co-op was open for business.
Suzan Ozel, an Evansville resident, was delighted to hear about the co-op through a pottery class taught by Eads. She became a working member, then a board member and part of the publicity committee, sending out weekly updates to members.
“I believe in the mission of growing food organically,” said Claire Helfrich, one of two part-time employees at the co-op. “Things made by hand, picked by hand, and sowed by hand taste better and have been raised with more love.”
The Eadses share her enthusiasm and have gone further to raise hens in their backyard, grow mushrooms in the basement and hold workshops, cooking seminars and other community activities through their supporting agency, Patchwork Central. For them, this is more than a hobby, it is life.
“I believe that the work people do comes out of their faith,” said John Eads. “If you want to know what someone believes in, look at how they spend their day.”
The co-op is a nonprofit agency supported by food sales and members, who receive up to a 15 percent discount after the initial $150 lifetime membership fee and may serve on advisory committees.
“There is a sense of ‘us’ that was so strong from the very start,” Eads said. “Members say, ‘This is my store, and it is up to me to make sure it runs well and looks good.’… I don’t think we could have made it in the beginning without that sense of community.”
Since opening, membership has grown 40 to 140 and an additional 150 shoppers per week enjoy the shopping space – more than 700 square feet – which took over the entire ground floor of the MVS house this spring.
“Most units have a volunteer that will mark the unit for life,” said Moises Angustia, MVS program director. He said the Eads have not only transformed the unit through the co-op but have changed lives through their commitment to following Christ.
Their customers include inquisitive neighbors, health-food fans from surrounding towns, and people with health needs such as diabetes or food allergies.
However, some community members still remain skeptical. Most customers come from neighboring towns, driving as long as two hours to visit River City Foods. Eads attributes this to the neighborhood’s 30-year reputation as the center of drugs, violent crime and prostitution.
Last fall, the city designated their neighborhood as the ‘Haynie’s Corner Art District’ to help counteract this stereotype. The climate is already changing, Eads said, as new art galleries, museums, cafés, theatres, and garden groups pop up. But, for him, this is more than just neighborhood revitalization.
“Unless we work to make investments in poor neighborhoods, communities and countries – rather than exploiting and taking assets from them – there will never be opportunity for improvement.”
He believes strongly that God's kingdom, if it is to be authentic, will be revealed in how all people of faith work towards a life of peace and hope for all people.
“This is the work that I chose to do for this time and place to be an usher for the kingdom,” Eads said. “I hope my work has been good and faithful.”
Eads worked to make this happen through discounts for those with food stamps and neighborhood initiatives such as community workshops, underwriting NPR programs and community events, sponsoring luncheons at Patchwork Central, helping with earth day events, and more.
“It makes it hard to leave, feeling like we are on the brink of the next big thing,” Eads said as he anticipates the end of his MVS term in August. “But the ‘big thing’ is in capable hands.”
New leaders are emerging from the surrounding community, and Angustia hopes the three empty rooms upstairs in the MVS Evansville house will soon have new volunteers to fill them. Eads leaves with many good memories and would like to continue experimenting with food co-ops as he has done over these past two years.
“This is the kingdom of God working itself out,” he said. “A group of people bonding together for the common good of the group and the society at large.”