LEWISTON — More than two dozen people gathered at St. Mary’s Nutrition Center on Monday to learn about the development of the Community Food Center in the downtown area.

The center is an initiative of St. Mary’s Nutrition Center in partnership with the Cooperative Development Institute, which seeks to increase access to healthy foods and provide resources for local farms and food-based enterprises. The center will include a cooperatively run, low-cost grocery store, café and shared commercial kitchen and food storage area.

Sherie Blumenthal, community programs manager for St. Mary’s Nutrition Center, said the center has a kitchen it uses for educational programming, but community members have expressed a strong desire for a kitchen that can be used for personal and commercial purposes.

Farmers and small businesses will be able to use the shared kitchen to create value-added products such as soups, jams and baked goods. They could sell the products in the cooperatively-owned grocery store.

Kristen Walter, director of St. Mary’s Nutrition Center, welcomes people Monday afternoon to a Community Food Center learning session at the center’s garden in downtown Lewiston. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

The grocery store will collectively be owned by community members and prioritize the needs of the community. Organizers say it will offer locally grown foods and other grocery staples at affordable prices.

Emmy Anderson, cooperative business developer for the institute, said the institute conducted a study for the Community Food Center and found the initiative was feasible and would meet several community needs. A survey from the organization showed that over 90% of respondents said they would “very likely” or “likely” shop at a low-cost grocery store in the Tree Street neighborhood.

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Anderson said the Community Food Center would also boost the downtown’s economy.

“There’s opportunity for reinvestment in the community because of the low supermarket access area that this is in — up to $13 million annually — which is currently leaking out of that community,” Anderson said in an interview.

The idea for the Community Food Center originated from the 2019 Local Foods Local Places community visioning process, but got a boost earlier this year after Lewiston received a $30 million Choice Neighborhoods implementation grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Of that amount, $1.8 million will be used to house the Community Food Center on the ground floor of the 66-unit, mixed-use development to be built on Pine Street next to Kennedy Park.

Organizers estimate that an additional $1.6 million in start-up capital will be needed for the Community Food Center. It would be come from donations and grants.

Anderson said it will be at least a couple of years before the Community Food Center will open.

Organizers are identifying community members interested in joining the steering committee, which will drive the development of the Community Food Center.

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“We have left the concept fairly broad so that the steering committee members will be able to fine-tune the project and take greater ownership of it it,” Anderson said. “We have envisioned that there will be farmer member-owners of the cooperative, farmers and producers, and worker member-owners, as well as consumer member-owners so that all of the different actors in the local food system and all of the actors that have a stake in this enterprise will have the ability to become owners of it as well.”

Ibrahim Mohamed, program director at Sustainable Livelihoods Relief Organization, is a grant writer for the initiative. He said the storage space will be critical for farmers who do not have enough space to store their crops each season.

“It’s going to help them out immensely,” he said. “It’s rewarding, too, because you’ll have people in our community investing in our community. I’m excited for it.”

Organizers are hosting a weekly Zoom forum Wednesdays to answer questions and discuss the Community Food Center’s development. For more information, email [email protected] or call St. Mary’s Nutrition Center at 207-513-3848.

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