Neechi president shocked by Manitoba Liberal plan to compete with existing store

The Manitoba Liberals promised on Friday they would bring a fresh food market to Winnipeg's inner city if elected. The president of Neechi Commons, an indigenous-run food cooperative on Main Street, believes the party does not appreciate the "significance" of what is already being done improve the availability of fresh food in the area.

‘It feels like we’re invisible’ says president of Neechi Foods Co-op on Main Street

The president of Neechi Commons on Main Street says she was shocked to find out the Manitoba Liberals's plan to open a not-for-profit grocery store near the food cooperative. (Jacques Marcoux/CBC)

The Manitoba Liberals promised on Friday they would create a not-for-profit fresh food market in downtown Winnipeg if elected April 19. 

"It will provide Manitobans a place to source great locally grown produce, meat and other groceries and this market will draw other businesses and residents to our core," said a Manitoba Liberal news release, billing it as a "fresh approach to downtown revitalization."

Loaves of bannock cool on the counter at Kokum's Bakery, one of several departments within Winnipeg's Neechi Commons. (Tim Fontaine)
"If I have my preference we will renovate an old warehouse space, but if that is not feasible we will purchase a surface parking lot and build new," Liberal Leader Rana Bokhari is quoted as saying in the release.

The Liberals estimate the cost of purchasing land and building the store to be $20 million.

Louise Champagne, president of Neechi Foods Co-op, calls the Liberal's announcement "shocking."

"It feels like we're invisible … I get really, really frustrated with that kind of invisibility," Champagne said.

Neechi Commons is an indigenous-run supermarket run out of a renovated building on Main Street. It bills itself as a destination for healthy, fresh, affordable food in an area under-served by Canada's major grocery chains. 

"They often talk about a food desert in the inner city and we're right here, we're an oasis," said Champagne.

Champagne said she does not know whether Bokhari or any member of her team has shopped at Neechi Commons and alleges the party may not have fully researched the inner city's food desert issue if it omitted the food cooperative's work.

At Neechi Commons, Granny Smith apples become "Kokum Smith" apples - the Ojibway word for grandmother - to reflect the indigenous culture in the surrounding neighbourhood. (Tim Fontaine/CBC)
"To talk about creating another similar project down the street is just really quite amazing to me. Somebody's got some wires crossed," said Champagne.

"We create employment in the community, we go a little bit beyond charity, beyond the food banks, we create employment opportunities for people to earn an income."

Neechi is actively trying to raise capital and pay down a heavy debt load, said Champagne. 

The $20 million the Manitoba Liberals said they would use to invest in a downtown grocery store would "absolutely" solve the cooperative's financial problems, Champagne said.


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