What you need to know about Greater Good, Binghamton's newest grocery
Store manager Jack Seman rips a long strip of packing tape off the cardboard box on the floor and pulls out the metal cans inside.
In the front of the store, an assistant manager lines up fresh packages of strawberries and loose grapefruits. Another employee fills the coolers in the back with plastic jugs of milk.
One by one, Seman stacks the cans on the shelf in front of him. He rotates each so their blue Goya labels face out. These are a recent addition to the store. Customers have asked for them, and Seman has driven four-hour-long round trips to Utica to get them.
Outside, one of the employees paints a colorful display on the front windows, advertising the store's supply of ice cream.
Passengers waiting at the bus stop on the street corner see the lush green grass and a newly paved parking lot surrounding the 5,083-square-foot store, which is neatly tucked into the first floor of a towering $20 million development project.
Motorists driving by the vacant shopping plaza across the street see the boarded-up storefronts, torn signs and pothole-laden roadways that tell the story of everything this stretch of Binghamton's North Side has lost.
Then they see the building that now houses Greater Good Grocery on State Street, rising above it all.
For 25 years, residents here have not had a traditional grocery. They've just had to make do without one.
Today, this vibrant, fresh food-filled store beckons them, like an oasis in the desert.
Binghamton’s North Side: A food desert for 25 years
Food deserts, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, are those areas where the poverty rate is 20% or higher and residents have limited access to healthy food.
On Binghamton’s North Side, 46% of the population lives at or below the poverty line – the median household income is $22,266.
This neighborhood has been considered a food desert for 25 years, ever since the Grand Union supermarket left it in 1996. Most residents rely on public transportation to get around, limiting their options for fresh, healthy food.
Here residents choose between toting an extra bag to the bus stop or going without until the next trip. They leave frozen goods and meats behind at the checkout counter because both could be ruined on the long walk home. The Weis Market one mile down the road might as well be 100 miles away.
Seman lived here in 2013, in the Town & Country apartment complex that stretches over three blocks of Chenango Street. He had been placed in the complex as part of a halfway house program through Fairview Recovery Services and didn’t have a car.
That meant walking to the Family Dollar on the corner or the CVS Pharmacy on the other side of the complex to buy food, and accepting whatever those stores had to offer.
“You’re kind of at the mercy of public transportation or just your friends or folks that live in your community,” he said.
From a trip to Utica, a Binghamton store is born
Eliminating the grocery gap on the North Side has been a laborious pursuit.
City of Binghamton Mayor Richard David announced grocery store plans for the neighborhood six months after taking office at the start of 2014, but when the former Big Lots building where the store was planned was deemed unsafe, those efforts were stymied.
A mobile market sold fresh produce at discounted prices from the old Binghamton Plaza parking lot. A grocery store shuttle funded by the city ferries residents to and from far-flung markets.
Improvements were made over the years, but still the North Side waited for a brick-and-mortar grocery.
“I think pantries and community meals, they’re necessary, they’re needed, they’re a staple in the community,” Seman said. “But they’re kind of like building a hospital that only has emergency rooms.”
Then in 2019, a group of nonprofit and community leaders traveled to Utica, to visit a different kind of grocery that had opened in a former food desert. They hoped it would hold the answer to Binghamton's problem.
Seman, who had begun volunteering with CHOW Warehouse in March of 2013, had over the last six years worked his way up to the CHOW director position, and it was in that capacity he joined leaders from the Community Foundation in South Central New York, the Broome County Council of Churches and members of Binghamton Mayor David's office on a trip to visit Utica's store: Bargain Grocery.
“The entire ride there, I just had the biggest smile on my face,” Seman said. “And when I went to actually go and visit the store, it was just incredible. The community utilizing the store, the folks that worked in the store, and the organization that operated the store, it really just made sense.”
Bargain Grocery opened in 2002. The store is able to sell fresh produce and healthy foods at affordable prices by buying overproduced food from national and local vendors, as well as receiving donated products from companies.
Proceeds from the store are then rolled back into the efforts of Utica-based nonprofit, Compassion Coalition, including food distributions, mattress giveaways and building houses for refugees.
In less than 10 years, Bargain Grocery has seen exponential growth, expanding from their original 1,200-square-foot space to a 12,000-square-foot facility that was built in 2018, and has even added a kitchen space that is used to prepare grab-and-go meals.
Seman and the group of community leaders who visited the store were so impressed with the store's model, they planned to recreate it on Binghamton’s North Side. They already had a location in mind: a $20.5 million housing development project in the works at the Canal Plaza on State Street.
Funding for the store would come from a number of community groups, as well as $150,000 from the City of Binghamton and another $150,000 in grant funding, including $5,000 from the Gannett Foundation's grantmaking and crowd-funding program.
Employees would hail from the North Side neighborhood and they, along with the customer base, would help inform stocking decisions. Proceeds from the store, as in Utica, would help fund other services provided by CHOW, Faith in Action and Broome Bounty.
It would take nearly two years to create, but early in January 2021, Binghamton’s first North Side grocery in 25 years opened its doors.
Transforming a food desert into a neighborhood hub
In late August, Seman rushes through Greater Good's front door, slightly out of breath. He's running late today, the result of his 3-year-old's wacky sleep schedule.
He feels lucky to have his family's support while doing this job, because it demands a lot of his time, and he's put everything he has into it.
“When you look at pictures from when we first opened, it looks a lot different now,” he says. “I think we have 10 times more products. It’s a huge difference.”
Despite supply issues exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, Greater Good Grocery is slowly transforming the food desert that has plagued the North Side community for 25 years.
Many of the residents living in Canal Plaza stop by the store daily to pick up the products they need. Once a week, Seman travels to Utica to get supplies for the store, and some of those choices are guided by what he hears from customers.
“If somebody comes in and says, 'Hey, I'd really like to see ginger root here,' and maybe it's not something that I cook with, but I'd be more than happy to listen to the community," he said. "Now, we sell a lot of ginger here. So, it's just listening to the community and trying to stock it with what they'd like to see.”
Any products nearing their expiration date or that aren’t going to be sold are picked up by Broome Bounty – the organization collects food that would otherwise be thrown away and distributes it at food pantries and community meals.
As for the food that isn’t salvageable, they have another solution – a local pig farmer.
There’s more to come.
Seman hopes to add more store hours, adopt the SNAP Double Up program in the store and expand the variety of options available. SNAP's match program, usually used at farmer's markets, incentivizes SNAP-eligible customers to buy two times the amount of fresh produce without paying more.
"I think that's going to be an incredible asset for the community," Seman said. "One of the things that we gathered when we were kind of canvassing the neighborhood and conducting this original study with the Community Foundation was that folks are usually short on their food budgets 50 to 100 dollars a month. So, allowing them to leverage their SNAP dollars, I think is going to make a huge difference, not just for them, but also for us."
Seman says some customers have told him they’re no longer reliant on medications they’d taken before because they’re able to get healthier foods from his store. Other customers have told him their food budgets are stretching further.
“I think those things are just going to multiply.”
‘This is my store’
On a sunny day in September inside Greater Good Grocery on State Street, George Benson’s “Turn Your Love Around” flows from the store’s speakers.
Assistant manager Shikinya Middleton sings along and dances through the aisles. She lives in this neighborhood, like all her other coworkers do.
That kind of community buy-in was important to Seman when this store was first being put together. The employees, he believes, should reflect and understand the community they serve.
Middleton dances her way over to a growing crowd of coworkers who've been drawn in by the contagious laugh of a customer.
Brown paper bag in hand, Adrienne Layne, an almost 62-year-old woman who could easily be mistaken for being at least 20 years younger, has come down to the store from her upstairs apartment for her daily peruse through the aisles.
Middleton says Layne is her favorite customer, but she seems to know everyone by name as soon as they walk through the door.
Behind a blue and white camouflage mask, Layne smiles and laughs. The sound carries around the store as she updates the employees — she calls them her ladies — on what is going on in her life and around town.
"This is my store," Layne says. "My ladies, they know this is a big deal here. I'm so thankful that this store is here and they do an excellent job."
For Layne and many others in the community, this store means much more than having a place to get fresh produce.
It means being able to choose the foods that will nourish their families, having a space to gather with friends and neighbors, and having all of that right in their backyard.
This is something greater.
Utica Observer-Dispatch reporter Ed Harris contributed to this report.