By Jess Szabo
Compassion Coalition’s grocery store, Your Bargain Grocer, is scheduled to move into its expanded location at 1110 Lincoln Avenue at the end of September.
“We are about a month away from opening the new store,” said Compassion Coalition Director of Agency Relations Rachel Daughtry. “We were out of space here. We have been in the process of expanding for four years, because we are so busy. We are out of space here, but with the new location we are going from 1,200 square feet to 12,000 square feet.”
If this were any other grocery store that would be the end of the story, but Your Bargain Grocer is part of an extraordinary tale of service to the people of Utica.
The organization was founded by CEO Mike Servello in January of 2000.
“As he was traveling outside the area, he discovered that food pantries were going empty mid-year,” Daughtry explained. “Because he had a background in the grocery business, he knew that this should not be happening, due to the amount of excess and wasted food in America.”
Compassion Coalition began with food distribution, its first work devoted to the mission of ensuring that everyone in the city has access to fresh food. “No person should be without food, or without access to fresh food,” Daughtry said.
Your Bargain Grocer ensures community access to quality food by buying excess items from both large companies and local farmers. While the stock varies, there are some items shoppers can count on, including fresh fruit, fresh produce, dairy products, and flash frozen boneless skinless chicken breasts.
Some customers are even able to do the majority of their food shopping at Your Bargain Grocer.
“I used to work with a mother of three children who would stock up for her entire family at the beginning of every month,” she added.
All of the food is the exact same quality shoppers can find at any other major grocery store.
“It’s just like what you would find at any big name store,” Daughtry explained. “There is no strange or mismarked packaging. It’s just from excess and overproduction.”
Fresh produce consists of excess items and those that were rejected by major grocery store chains for purely cosmetic reasons.
“If an apple is a half inch too big or too small, a lot of grocery stores won’t take it,” Daughtry further explained.
Your Bargain Grocer is then able to offer these items for a much lower price than what shoppers would find in other stores.
“We are able to offer the items at 30% to 50% off retail, and increase the buying power of those on SNAP by 30%,” Daughtry said. “That is the exact reason we exist. We want everyone to shop in our store; but we especially want to make sure that people have access to fresh food who otherwise could not afford it.”
In addition to expanded retail space, the new Your Bargain Grocer will feature a commercial kitchen. This will allow the grocer to offer healthy meals to those who depend on prepared foods.
“People often do not know how to cook today,” Daughtry explained, adding that many who have limited cooking skills and financial resources begin to lean on unhealthy prepared foods such as fast food meals or prepared meals that are high in sodium and preservatives.
“Shoppers will be able to purchase a fresh baked chicken, or side dishes you wouldn’t know how to make that are healthy,” she said.
Purchasing these, or any other items from Your Bargain Grocer gives back to the community.
“All funds made get funneled back,” Daughtry said. “Each year, we donate more than $20 million back to the community. You are shopping with a purpose, for a purpose when you shop here. You are not only getting great deals, you are shopping to impact the local community.”
Funds raised from the store allow Compassion Coalition to fund a variety of programs that extend their community impact even further.
“In 2017, we did a mattress giveaway. Each mattress giveaway is to partner agencies. We were able to give away 160 mattress sets, including the mattress, box springs, and frame. The people who received them range from foster children who are returning home, to elderly people,” Daughtry explained.
Compassion Coalition also works with other non-profits to make sure that hygiene and cleaning products get to those in need. Local agencies can come to Compassion Coalition and purchase items such as shampoo, soap, household disinfectant, diapers, and feminine hygiene products by the pound, for a very small administration fee.
“We extend the buying power of the agencies we serve,” she added. “Non-profits are able to have three to five times the buying power they would have if they purchased the same products anywhere else. They can then distribute those items to their clients.”
Perhaps the most unique program of the Compassion Coalition is the Teacher Resource Center. This program addresses the issue of teachers being forced to pay for school supplies out of their own money due to lack of funding for educational resources in the public schools.
“We started the very first teacher resource center,” Daughtry said. “Teachers who work in public schools where at least 70% of the students receive free or reduced lunch can come in and shop for free in the center.”
Teachers whose students range from Kindergarten through high school are welcome. They may use the center to defray their own costs, but also to preserve the dignity of students who may not be able to bring their own supplies to school.
“If a student comes to school and does not have a notebook, for example, a teacher can quietly hand that student a notebook from our center,” Daughtry said.
Anyone who feels inspired to help Compassion Coalition with any of these programs is encouraged to reach out to the organization. There is room for everyone.
“We ask, ‘What are you most passionate about?,’” Daughtry said. “Then we will link you up to a specific area where you will enjoy volunteering. There are several positions in the store, you can build furniture, or you can work in the Teacher Resource Center.”
Potential volunteers who work for other nonprofit agencies are also encouraged to apply, as Compassion Coalition works to support, never to compete with, other organizations.
“The whole reason we exist is to meet the needs other agencies are not filling,” Daughtry stated. “We never want to compete with other non-profits in our area. We want to partner with them.”
Individuals and organizations who would like to reach out to Compassion Coalition may contact them at 315-266-0039 or online at distributehope.org. Their current location is 509 Lafayette Street in Utica. You can also follow them on Facebook at @YourBargainGrocer and on Twitter @UrBargainGrocer.