Rachel Jefferson, executive director of the Historic Northeast Midtown Association, stands outside the future Northeast Grocer Co-Op.
Matt Kleinmann Rachel Jefferson, executive director of the Historic Northeast Midtown Association, stands outside the future Northeast Grocer Co-Op.

In 2012, Wyandotte County was ranked the unhealthiest in the state of Kansas. A lack of fresh, healthy food had contributed to a public health crisis, and as of today, one census tract in the area has the highest estimated rate of Type 2 diabetes in all of the state. Instead of waiting for a corporate grocery store to take notice of food insecurity here, local organizations—with help from designers—have put matters into the community’s hands by developing a plan for the Northeast Grocer Co-Op.

Matt Kleinmann, a University of Kansas doctoral student who has dedicated his academic and professional life to activism around health and the built environment, says that health disparities in a corner of Wyandotte County—northeast Kansas City, Kan. (KCK)— are exacerbated by systemic inequities. Today, there isn’t a single full-service grocery store for the entire community of 20,000 residents. “This lack of investment puts all of our residents at a public health disadvantage, especially seniors and those that live below the poverty line, where finding the nearest grocery store represents a major inconvenience,” Kleinmann says.

Spearheaded by the Historic Northeast-Midtown Association (HNMA), the Northeast Grocer Co-Op is set to be housed along a historic corridor in a vacant storefront, which has already been cleaned out by community volunteers and prepped for upgrades. A series of engagement events and participatory design exercises are taking place throughout 2019, allowing community members to plan the co-op’s future together.

Kleinmann’s long-term involvement with the Northeast Grocer Co-Op includes coordinating design services. He is also developing “Holding Space,” an interactive exhibit that invites residents to take part in the design process and documents the co-op project as it progresses. A participant in last fall’s AIA Design Justice Summit, Kleinmann believes that giving community members decision-making power is imperative for infusing social justice into design.

“With ‘Holding Space,’ we’re inviting the community to participate in developing their own visual narrative, which will be an interim installation on display as we seek to return a grocery store to the space. This gives our community the tools and capacity needed to hold space for reflection on where we’ve been and where we’re going,” he says.

KU School of Architecture’s Dotte Agency, the design collaborative Kleinmann co-founded with professors Shannon Criss, AIA, and Nils Gore, AIA, will partner with YouthBuild KCK, an AmeriCorps Vista/United Way program that supports construction training for young people pursuing GEDs, to design and build the exhibit. “Holding Space,” like many other initiatives spearheaded by Design Justice Summit participants across the country, will receive grant funding from AIA.

But the installation is just one important piece of the bigger project. The Northeast Grocer Co-Op is a massive undertaking with high hopes of transforming the social and physical health of Northeast KCK.

Below, we asked Rachel Jefferson, executive director of the Historic Northeast Midtown Association, about the collaborative nature of the project and the promise it holds:

Why is collaboration among community members, organizations, and designers critical to the success of the project?

RJ: The Northeast Grocer Co-op is about a lot more than providing safe and affordable food in a food desert. Although that is an outcome of the project, the principles that guide the project are rooted in community self-direction and co-creation. Under-resourced communities like Northeast KCK are successful in furthering those principles when they have equitable access to cross-sectoral collaborations among community members, community organizations, institutions, designers that provide technical expertise, in-kind donations, and material resources to support the community’s vision of itself.

How does Holding Space factor in to the overall mission of the co-op project?

RJ: Holding Space will capture the rich history of Northeast KCK by highlighting the area’s previous economic and social vibrancy, with the intended outcome of garnering community support for future economic revitalization activities in the area. It provides an avenue for sharing the rich history of the community and the evolution of the Northeast Grocer project, while also functionally providing seating and storage space for the co-op.

What is one hope you have for the future of your community? How does the co-op fit into that vision?

RJ: HNMA’s goal is to improve the quality of life for Northeast KCK residents while creating a more desirable, healthy, safe, and economically vibrant community. This project is providing Northeast KCK with an invaluable jumpstart in managing their own food supply and improving the economic and physical conditions of a key part of Quindaro Boulevard, a major artery in Northeast KCK. In the longterm, this project will catalyze redevelopment along Quindaro and the Northeast by creating opportunities for ownership, economic self-direction, and cultural healing within the community.