When Sehla Graham’s mother transplanted her and her siblings from Flatbush to Hudson in 1994, the Columbia County city was down and out. “She would say she gave us fresh air and trees and safety, but I would say the first couple years were very violent,” says Graham, remembering an era of drugs and crime. Plucked from her social life right on the cusp of high school, ripped from the familiar diversity and cultural richness of New York City, a resentful Graham didn’t speak to her mother for a year and a half. Yet over time, the rough-around-the-edges city grew on her, and she’s made a life and a career uplifting Hudson.
The mother of seven, Graham has run several businesses over the years, from a bookstore in Catskill to a Jamaican restaurant in a former strip club on 7th Street in Hudson to a laundromat with rooms for rent upstairs. These days, she’s on the school board and she’s one of the managers and founders of Rolling Grocer 19, which was the city’s first grocery store in 20 years when it launched in 2018.
“When I moved here, there was Sam’s on Warren,” Graham says. “Sam’s did things that Rolling Grocer is doing now—curbside pick-up, delivery, payment in installments. They even did something extra—they did layaway. If you worked in the factory and you got paid every Thursday, you could get your groceries ahead of time and pay when you got paid.”
When the family that ran Sam’s sold the building in the late ’90s and moved to a location on Fairview Avenue, outside of Hudson’s walkable, densely populated downtown, the city was left without a grocery store. While specialty provisions markets and high-end restaurants flourished—perhaps sufficient sustenance for weekenders—no business was filling the anchor role of an accessible grocery store. “Sam’s was so successful because it was within accessibility range for people who didn’t have transportation,” explains Graham. Case in point: Sam’s folded just months after the move.
An Iterative ApproachThe Food Empowerment Project defines food deserts as “geographic areas where residents’ access to affordable, healthy food options (especially fresh fruits and vegetables) is restricted or nonexistent due to the absence of grocery stores within convenient traveling distance.” ShopRite and Aldi are almost three miles from downtown Hudson—hardly convenient for someone without a car.
In 2017, the Hudson Core Group formed, with Graham as one of the members, to research barriers to food access in the community and work on solutions to increase the health and well-being of Hudson residents. “Kellogg’s, General Mills—that wasn’t the conversation,” Graham recalls. “We were asking how people could actually support local farms and have food that was healthy and not stupid expensive. The framework for fair pricing was a part of this conversation from the beginning.”
Pricing wasn’t the only issue—there was also location to consider. “There are so many fissures in the town,” Graham says, alluding to race and class divides. “In Brooklyn, you go wherever, up here, it’s a little different. You can feel the affluence more, the haves and the have nots. People on Union and Allen would shop on Warren, but people on Columbia and State would not. There’s nothing for them to afford. So you had issues with the neighborhoods. How can an eight-block, three-mile town have neighborhoods, right? But it does, so how do you support all of them with one space?”
In 2016, the Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation announced a grant for projects addressing the issue of food access in Columbia County. The Institute for Mindful Agriculture, which was then an incubator project of Hawthorne Valley, teamed up with Long Table Harvest to apply. After being awarded the funds, the organizations decided to start in Hudson, the county seat, where they linked up with the Hudson Core Group.
Together, the coalition came up with the idea of a mobile grocery store which would address food access not only in the city of Hudson but in all 19 of Columbia County’s communities (hence the 19 in the name). In September 2018, Rolling Grocer 19 hit the streets with a retrofitted, refrigerated 16-foot trailer, stocking a range of fresh and frozen provisions, local produce, meat, seafood, and some hygiene products. “We thought if we were outside people’s doors, how could they not support something in their face?” Graham recalls. “They did support it, but we came in when the cold was coming back and people weren’t walking as much. It didn’t track well with seasonal behavior shifts.”
There was also an aesthetic question. Per Graham, at first the trailer looked like a “medical van,” instead of an inviting place to shop for food. “I imagined it would have some outside component of fruits and vegetables like the fruit stands in the city, but also be something you could walk inside,” Graham says, but that didn’t materialize. There were also issues with parking in Hudson, and then the shortcomings of their barebones retrofit, which left the trailer freezing in winter and boiling in summer. “When we talk about Rolling Grocer, the different iterations and mistakes we’ve made have made us better,” Graham says.
By March 2019, the Rolling Grocer team had pivoted their primary operations to a storefront on South 2nd Street. The trailer is still in use, though it mostly services the more rural areas of Columbia County, including a weekly drop in New Lebanon, where the closest grocery stores are two towns over in Chatham or Pittsfield, Massachusetts. “Once we realized the trailer’s limited capacity for a city as dense as Hudson, we thought about using it in smaller towns,” Graham says, “And we decided an anchored store would be better in a dense space.”
The 630-square-foot storefront stocks a wide range of wholesome products, including fresh produce, dairy, bread, grains, meat, seafood, non-perishables, and toiletries. “We’re not concerned with access to just any food, but with access to real, whole food—and local,” Graham says. “The closer you are to your food the healthier you are. And why not support the farmers that feed and employ people? Let that money that is circulating in our community bounce around a few times before it goes out to Amazon.”
Local producers carried in-store include Bee Hollow Apiary, Chaseholm Farm, Dog Wood Farm, Eger Brothers Farm, Hawthorne Valley Farm, Hearty Roots Farm, Hudson Valley Fisheries, Ironwood Farm, Juniper Hill Farm, Kinderhook Farm, Letterbox Farm, Love Apple Farm, Our Daily Bread, Sea to Table, Sparrowbush Farm + Bread, and Tortilleria Nixtamal. And the list goes on and on.
In addition to its commitment to supporting local farms and providing nutritious fresh foods to the local community, Rolling Grocer is also continually trying to minimize its ecological footprint. The bulk section offers a container-free way to refill on pantry staples from flour and oats to legumes, grains, nuts, seeds, spices, and even toiletries like shampoo and body wash. The storefront is also a drop-off location for TerraCycle, which recycles items like razors, batteries, and lightbulbs that standard-single stream system can’t accept.
Accessibility for AllTrue to their core mission, Rolling Grocer implements a “fair pricing system” that uses a three-tier membership model. In this confidential honor system, members self-select into a tier based on a combination of factors including income, social privilege, and access. The green tier offers products at standard retail price, with the money from these sales going to operational overhead costs like payroll and utility bills. The orange tier offers products somewhere between wholesale and retail price, while the blue tier is at or below wholesale. Rolling Grocer fundraises to cover the whole cost of the blue tier and some of the orange tier.
“The food apartheid that exists here is from the gentrification that has happened,” Graham says. “It’s not just about being a grocery store in Hudson, it’s about access to healthy, nutritious food. We offer 100 percent privacy and 100 percent dignity—that’s not a gimmick to get you in the door, it’s really giving you accessibility at your price point.”
Recognizing that access to whole foods after a long period often requires education, Rolling Grocer has partnered with the Sylvia Center to offer classes around food prep, storage, and cooking, including topics like meat substitution.
Mending the HolesDespite the work of Rolling Grocer 19, which has undergone some management restructuring over the past month, there is much work to be done to close the food access gap in Hudson and the surrounding areas. “There still are a lot of holes,” Graham says, pointing to transportation issues for carless folks the county over and sourcing disconnects between local grocery stores and area farms.
As for Rolling Grocer 19’s future plans, the plan is to branch back out beyond Hudson city limits. “We have the 19 towns right in the name of our organization,” Graham says. “Once we’ve gotten through this little triage patch, we want to be in other places. We want to talk with the minds and anchors in communities like Valatie and Germantown—not to say there isn’t food there, but is it accessible and affordable? Those are the things that make Rolling Grocer necessary. We have a pricing system that specifically looks at the inequities of the food price while also supporting local farmers.”
Using the trailer to offer roaming curbside service, Rolling Grocer has the capability to give residents access to nutritious, organic, fresh food, plus frozen goods, and hygiene products from Greenport to Philmont, town centers to mobile home parks.
And if its success in Hudson is any sign, people will be very glad for it. In three short years, Rolling Grocer 19 has become an integral part of the Hudson community. “We had people that were thinking about giving up apartments and housing and moving somewhere easier, because it was too much,” Graham says. “The thought of being here in winter, the thought of all the places they would have to go to get their food—there were all these multipliers. But then when we came into place, suddenly there was a community watering hole for people to talk about food and request foods that they loved, offering affordability and accessibility. A lot of people have said we’ve added to their quality of life. That’s huge when you think about what all’s at play in that.”
As of October 12, the Rolling Grocer 19 storefront is open daily, 9am-7pm. The mobile grocer offers delivery service to New Lebanon on Monday afternoons. You can also order online.
6 South 2nd Street, Hudson