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Ruell Chappell preps the Well-Fed Neighbor Store in hopes of soft-launching the business the weekend of July 22.
Ruell Chappell preps the Well-Fed Neighbor Store in hopes of soft-launching the business the weekend of July 22.

Well-Fed Neighbor Store to open this summer

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On a late June day, sawdust and chunks of Formica – remnants of a counter removed to make way for a shiny replacement – cover the floor at the Well-Fed Neighbor Store, a work in progress at 1925 E. Bennett St. under the leadership of musician-turned-entrepreneur Ruell Chappell.

With this small store, Chappell hopes to reinvigorate Springfield’s economy, increase food security and sustainability and make the city’s menu healthier through locally grown food.

Chappell believes it can be done, and his store is just one piece in his experiment to prove it. Delays such as truck breakdowns and a freezer that had to be replaced kept Chappell from opening the first week of June, but he says plans now call for a soft opening the weekend of July 22.

‘We don’t know food anymore’
Chappell has funneled about $130,000 of his personal resources into the store, which will operate from leased space. His passion for promoting locally grown food stems from a change in the level of knowledge people have about what they eat. When he was growing up in the 1950s, there were small markets every few blocks, selling crops such as tomatoes and cucumbers that were grown in town, he said.

Fast-forward to today, and things have changed.

“We as a people allowed our food to creep away from us,” he said, noting that food isn’t immune to globalization of the world’s economy and now may travel hundreds or thousands of miles from field to plate.

That shift means local food prices are vulnerable to global events, and many areas, including Springfield, can’t sustain themselves without importing food.

Consumer attitudes also are a problem, Chappell said, with customers expecting a steady supply of food at their supermarkets for the cheapest price, a practice that hurts growers and doesn’t work with food’s own schedule.

“We don’t know food anymore,” he said. “We know business. We know supermarkets. We’ve got to learn to know our food again.”

The local value chain
In the face of these problems, Chappell is harnessing an increasing interest in local food.

“The answer is to have food right here,” he said. “We’re trying to re-localize the food supply to create economy and jobs.”

In a national economy dominated by services, food production provides a tangible foundation on which to build jobs and a local, self-sustaining economic engine, Chappell said. To show the model can work, he and others have built what he called a value chain, a group of businesses that convey food from seed to retail and work together instead of pushing each other to oblivion for the bottom line, Chappell said.

First came the Well-Fed Neighbor Alliance, a loose-knit group of local producers committed to the idea of local food production. Chappell said he formed the alliance with a push from Galen Chadwick, whose passion for rebuilding Missouri’s food infrastructure fueled the project from its inception. Next was the Well-Fed Neighbor Ltd., which has applied for nonprofit status, Chappell said, and focuses on educating the public on local food and its benefits.

With producers and education in place, adding a distributor was the next logical step, Chappell said. He and others founded Well-Fed Neighbor Cooperative LLC, an organization that enables local-food proponents to restore Springfield’s processing and distribution infrastructure and provide centralized billing for interested outlets.

“Now, we need a store,” Chappell said. Grocery stores and restaurants are reluctant to get on board until the mechanism is in place, he said, so he found his own retail space in a former Git-n-Go gas station on East Bennett Street, a block east of Glenstone Avenue.

The store’s shelves will be stocked with locally grown produce, and music and education events also will be held on-site.

Chappell is upfront about the fact that the produce at his store will cost 10 percent to 15 percent more than produce at larger stores, but he believes it’s a worthwhile economic investment because it supports local jobs, improves food security and community health, and reduces fuel usage for transporting food to market.

Grassroots movement
While Chappell said it is up to the community to get the ball rolling for more locally grown food – by demanding it in stores and restaurants, as well as on school menus – he isn’t alone in his efforts to encourage more local growers and consumption of local foods.

The Springfield Urban Agriculture Coalition works on several ongoing community gardening projects that focus on education, said Lucy Howell, who runs the organization with Melissa Millsap. One project, called Urban Roots Farm, aims to demonstrate the profitability and sustainability of farming on an acre or less while feeding 60 families, she said.

“Gardening has definitely had a comeback,” Howell said.

In March, the Missouri Department of Agriculture launched the 10,000 Gardens Challenge to encourage gardening statewide. The challenge has surpassed 3,000 gardens.

Getting involved doesn’t have to be expensive, Chappell said.

“You’ve just got to get out and do it. All it takes is seeds and work,” he added.[[In-content Ad]]

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