When a deep red town’s only grocery closed, city hall opened its own store. Just don’t call it ‘socialism.’

Photo: Baldwin, Fla., is surrounded by farm country, and in late October, local green beans, tomatoes, peanuts, cabbage and milk filled the shelves of the Baldwin Market, which is owned by the town. (Antonia Noori Farzan)

By Antonia Noori Farzan November 22, 2019 at 5:03 a.m. EST

BALDWIN, Fla. — When Sean Lynch ran for mayor, he never anticipated that the job would involve hiring a butcher and tracking the sale of collard greens.

But in 2018, two years into his first term, the only grocery store in town shut down. People in Baldwin, Fla., a rural outpost in northeast Florida, were left with few options. They could leave town, driving 10 miles through road construction to nearby Macclenny, or battle 20 miles of freeway traffic through Jacksonville’s suburban sprawl. Alternatively, they could cobble together a meal out of canned goods from the local Dollar General or head to a nearby truck stop for greasy, deep-fried fast food.

For many of Baldwin’s roughly 1,600 residents, though, traveling for food wasn’t really a choice. The town’s median household income of $44,271 is well below the state average, and it’s not uncommon for families to juggle their schedules around sharing one car. Senior citizens also make up a significant percentage of the population, and many no longer drive.

So Lynch came to his colleagues with a proposal: What if the town opened its own grocery store?

Abandoned by mainstream supermarkets whose business models don’t have room for low profit margins, both urban and rural communities nationwide have turned to resident-owned co-ops or nonprofits to fill the gap. But Baldwin is trying something different. At the Baldwin Market, which opened its doors on Sept. 20, all of the employees are on the municipal payroll, from the butcher to the cashiers. Workers from the town’s maintenance department take breaks from cutting grass to help unload deliveries, and residents flag down the mayor when they want to request a specific type of milk.

“We’re not trying to make a profit,” Lynch told The Washington Post in a recent interview. “We’re trying to cover our expenses, and keep the store running. Any money that’s made after that will go into the town in some way.”AD

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