Case Study: A Years-Long Journey with Main Street Marketplace

The Lupton Center exists with one goal in mind: equipping others to do holistic, place-based development work. Today, we want to give you an in-depth look at how one Change-Maker radically transformed the nonprofit she was working. Alongside her team, she swapped out a charity-based approach for a development one. Over the course of nearly […]

The Lupton Center exists with one goal in mind: equipping others to do holistic, place-based development work. Today, we want to give you an in-depth look at how one Change-Maker radically transformed the nonprofit she was working. Alongside her team, she swapped out a charity-based approach for a development one. Over the course of nearly 8 years, her organization has transformed the town and unleashed flourishing that few would have thought possible.

If you are ready to get a glimpse of the transformation that’s possible in your community, we encourage you to read this story about Hope Oliphant and Main Street Marketplace in China Grove, North Carolina. 

An Economic Downturn Goes Generational

China Grove, North Carolina, is a small town that lost its economic center when the local textile mill closed in the early 2000s. Hundreds of locals found themselves unemployed. Many had relied on the mill for their housing, too. The closure plunged the community into an economic crisis. 

Main Street Marketplace was created to respond to this very real emergency. It began as a food pantry where residents could come and get groceries. It became a staple of the community. It kept families fed. 

But two decades later, the food pantry was still using the same model. Families’ situation, and the state of China Grove, hadn’t changed much. “When I came 8 years ago, we had been serving the same families for two or three generations,” Executive Director Hope Oliphant explains. She knew it was time for a change.

Toxic Charity and FCS Open House Spark New Ideas

Hope had heard about the Lupton Center through her 10 years working as a youth pastor. “I was doing mission work at the time, but I kept feeling like something wasn’t quite right. Like we could be doing something more,” she recalls. She connected with a nonprofit organization that referenced Toxic Charity. She read it and wanted to see this new paradigm in action. She and a colleague from her church went to one of the FCS’ Open Houses to witness the neighborhood development model first-hand in 2014. She accepted the role of Executive Director for Main Street Marketplace shortly after attending.

“I’ve been to 2 Open Houses since then,” she laughs. Each time, she brought different community members and stakeholders along with her. She has seen that showing people a different approach to development can make all the difference. 

These early encounters with the Lupton Center sparked a big vision of what Main Street Marketplace could become. “I wanted China Grove to thrive,” she says, “that meant finding a way to bring back everything the town had before the mill closed. We needed the jobs, the food, the housing, the pride.” 

Taking the Plunge with Leaders Lab

Once Hope had brought some key leaders from China Grove to an Open House, she felt the momentum for change begin to build. But she knew she couldn’t execute it alone, and that she would need coaches and companions to encourage her and help hone the ideas that were coming to the fore. That’s when she decided to join Leaders Lab, a year-long cohort where she would receive individualized coaching alongside group calls to equip her with all of the Lupton Center’s tools. 

“I wouldn’t have had the courage to make the changes we needed to make without Leaders Lab,” Hope says. “Every time I faced the magnitude of what we were trying to do, or any time someone deeply criticized the approach we were taking, it would feel too hard. I thought no one would understand. Whenever I felt discouraged, Shawn or Stacy would say the right thing or point me in the right direction.” 

Two Key Activities: SPIRE Assessment and Organizational Story

She particularly remembers the impact of two specific activities in Leaders Lab: the SPIRE Assessment and writing our Main Street Marketplace’s organizational story. 

“Doing the SPIRE Assessment was absolutely key to getting people on board,” Hope says. As part of the SPIRE Assessment, she and others from Main Street Marketplace surveyed a variety of stakeholders, including volunteers, board members, neighbors, and staff. “The Lupton Center took all of that information and created this beautiful document that showed all of the data and statistics,” Hope says. She took it to her board meeting to discuss the results, which showed the need for making a shift to a more holistic approach. “It took the discussion from people thinking it was just my idea or opinion to really showing that it’s what the whole community wanted. It was data. It was in black and white.” 

In another part of Leaders Lab, cohort members were asked to write out their organizational stories. “I remember seeing the vision really come together when Shawn had us write out our story. It explained how we were trying to bring back what was lost when the mills closed — a sense of community, living wage jobs, affordable housing. We wanted to make a space where we could make that kind of food accessible.  We wanted to create jobs and help people understand how to get access to fresh foods, but also what to do with them.  Writing all of this out helped me pinpoint where we were going.” 

Hope says she’s used this story to explain the Marketplace to others, even put it on grants. 

Implementation: How Main Street Marketplace Transformed 

Main Street Marketplace had the advantage of being geographically defined, and they already had a mechanism for listening to our neighbors. They offered a 15-week program called Getting Ahead via the Bridges Out of Poverty Initiative where staff would spend time with people, have meals, and use a curriculum for skill-building. “Over those 15 weeks we would learn a lot about our neighbors,” Hope says.

These insights informed the strategies for creating help without creating dependency. 

They decided to shift the Marketplace from being a food pantry to operating as a grocery store with a tiered system of payment. The blue tier would pay for groceries at market rate. The yellow tier would pay about 25% less for groceries compared to other local grocery stores. Families in the green tier would access groceries at about 45% of the retail price. Members would choose a tier based on their household income and any other extenuating circumstances. Ideally, Hope and stakeholders reasoned, community members would grasp the vision and choose the tier that fit them the best.

They began with a pilot. 180 people participated for 3 months. It showed incredibly promising success. They soon opened it up to a wider swath of the community. The Main Street Marketplace officially opened.

It has been a smashing success! “Within the first 9 months we had recouped all of our initial investment, and we were more than breaking even on food,” Hope beams. Today, half of the families who shop at the Marketplace pay retail price, while the other half pay at a subsidized rate. The Marketplace now employs several community members. 

Now, for every $10 a person spends in the store, $4 gets generated for the community. The model had eliminated one-way giving, expanded access to fresh food, and even created new jobs for China Grove. 

There was even more to come as Main Street Marketplace started to thrive. 

Leveraging Partnerships to Benefit the Local Economy

“When we were getting to know the families, we realized that what they would buy when they went shopping was very different from the food they would get from the food pantry,” Hope says. Food pantries around China Grove were offering peanut butter, grains, and shelf-stable items. “But when we did mock shopping exercises with families, they would buy fresh vegetables and meats.” She saw an opportunity. Main Street Marketplace began to collaborate with local farmers to source their produce and animal products. It gave a boost to the rural farmers, and expanded the variety and freshness of foods in the market. 

Then, Main Street Market added an initiative to further benefit the community by growing the food.  get the community involved in growing the food, too. Main Street Marketplace applied for a grant to start the Main Street Garden – a hydroponic growing center. Graduates of Main Street Marketplace programs maintain the garden as employees under the tutelage of a head grower. This endeavor has allowed locals to see their food growing and learn more about nutrition. It boosts year-round food access and sustainability, too! Today, the hydroponics garden features 400 square feet and is wildly productive. 

“We can grow 300 heads of lettuce every 10 days,” Hope says. Even better, a graduate of the Getting Ahead program, the 15-week one that revealed neighbors’ propensity for vegetables, runs the garden. 

Summary: Transforming the Block and Changing Minds

“It’s been a long process,” Hope says. “At the beginning when I first began engaging the Lupton Center, it felt like a big leap for our board. We are a small organization, and it has been a long-term investment. But I promise to everyone that if you make that investment, your neighborhood will get 3-fold for what you as an organization put in. One of the best things about working with the Lupton Center is that I never felt like I was alone. And if you’re serious about this kind of work, don’t go at it alone.” 

As Main Street Marketplace transformed, people who were once skeptical of the model have become some of its strongest advocates. The Marketplace and gardens are a shining example to other struggling communities nearby. Still, what makes Hope the most proud is the dignity of her neighbors. Half of all the Marketplace staff are local residents and graduates of their programs, and she interacts with them as equals. 

“It’s why we do what we do. We love our neighbors, and we want to see our community really thrive. It’s what makes all of the long, hard work really worth it.”

We couldn’t be more honored to have worked with Main Street Marketplace. Let’s partner in writing your neighborhood’s story. Click here to get started with the Lupton Center.