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PORTLAND TRIBUNE: CHRISTOPHER KEIZUR - Louie Rico, left, and Yadira Bracamontes live in New Columbia and help provide healthy food to their neighbors by working at the Village Market.
Six months ago, Louie Rico stumbled upon a job at Village Market in North Portland. He lives just around the corner, and would go to the store to pick up a bus ticket.


During one of these daily trips, Rico saw a brochure advertising an assistant manager position at the store, so with encouragement from the other employees, many of whom also lived nearby, he applied and got the job.

“Once I knew the mission of Village Market, it excited me even more to be here,” Rico says.

Village Market provides a food support system for families in the heart of Oregon’s largest affordable housing community, New Columbia, where more than 3,000 residents live. Before the nonprofit grocery store opened five years ago, New Columbia was a food desert, with 33 percent of residents unable to easily get to food suppliers. No other food outlet is within a 15-block radius of the neighborhood.

“The intent of the market has always been to provide access to this neighborhood,” says Ryan Schoonover, Village Market store manager. “We are trying to allow people to have power in their dollars.”

The market, which is affiliated with both Village Gardens and Janus Youth Programs, has close ties to the community it serves. Before it opened, an intensive two-year community-led process took place to determine how the store could best serve the neighborhood. The answer: provide affordable and healthy food.

“We want to be a place where if someone needs eggs and milk for their family, or frozen vegetables for their recipe, they can come to us,” Schoonover says.

Village Market is open daily. Organizers removed the traditional corner store fare, replacing alcohol, tobacco and lottery tickets with fruits and vegetables. Scattered around the store are recipe cards for meals like taco salad or chocolate carrot muffins, which can be made using items from the store.

Recent funding from the Portland Children’s Levy, an initiative that supports local kids, has allowed Village Market to implement and expand its Good Food Program. The goal is to promote the foundations of health through tangible steps.

Residents can sign up for a membership program, which provides a 30 percent discount on healthy foods.

Another program was born out of advertising for the market. Staff sent Veggie Bucks with their outreach mailers, which could be redeemed at the store for $5 in fruits or vegetables.

Children also can get free fruit when they go into Village Market, which many will do on their way to school in the mornings.

“Once we explain they can take fruit every day, they instantly get a smile,” Rico says.

The free fruit is one of the most successful programs at Village Market, with 2,307 pieces handed out in April.

“A lot of kids will normally get the chips or the sodas,” says Chelsea Hardy, a cashier at the store. “We try to encourage them to eat an apple — they’re free. It helps teach them to eat healthier.”

In many ways, Village Market is more than a store. It hires many locals, like Rico and Hardy, providing a source of income at New Columbia — where 95 percent of the residents live at or below the federal poverty level. The store has tie-ins with other projects in the neighborhood, like the community gardens and farmers market.

The market also has a kitchen that residents have access to, allowing them to cook and produce their own products to share with the community.

“During our five years, we have had people come in and use the kitchen to make products that we sell here,” Schoonover says.

“Most corner stores are focused on high-revenue items,” Schoonover says. “We are trying to be a grocery store.”

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