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

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)

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.”

Though Lynch didn’t know of any other municipally owned grocery stores when he brought the idea to the town council, Baldwin isn’t alone. A similar experiment has been successful in St. Paul, Kan., which has had a city-run grocery store since 2013. David Procter, who directs the Rural Grocery Initiative at Kansas State University, told The Post that another city-owned grocery store will open in Caney, Kan., in the spring, and at least one other town in the state is considering following suit.

Many small-town grocers are reaching retirement age, and it’s tough for communities with dwindling populations to attract new residents when there’s no supermarket nearby. Consequently, Procter says, “food access becomes almost like a utility that you have to have for the town to exist.”

Notably, these experiments in communal ownership are taking place in deep-red parts of the country where the word “socialism” is anathema. “You expect to hear about this in a place like the People’s Republic of Massachusetts,” jokes Brian Lang, the director of the National Campaign for Healthy Food Access at The Food Trust.

Ahead of the 2020 elections, Republicans are again trying to contrast themselves with Democrats by linking Democratic policy proposals to “socialism.” (Video: The Washington Post)

But in many rural, conservative communities struggling to hang on to their remaining residents, ideological arguments about the role of government tend to be cast aside as grocery stores shutter because of population decline and competition from superstores.

“Fundamentally, what you have is people that have lived in these rural communities all their lives, and they want these rural communities to survive,” Procter said. “And they realize that without access to food, they’re not going to survive.”

By definition, a collectively owned, government-run enterprise like the Baldwin Market is inherently socialist. But Lynch, who has a nonpartisan position but governs a town where 68 percent of residents voted for Donald Trump in 2016, doesn’t see it that way. From his point of view, the town is just doing what it’s supposed to do: providing services to residents who already pay enough in taxes.

Republicans are constantly warning about the perils of "socialism" in America. Here's a guide for readers. (Video: Meg Kelly, Joy Sharon Yi/The Washington Post, Photo: Atthar Mirza/The Washington Post)

“We take the water out of the ground, and we pump it to your house and charge you,” he told The Post. “So what’s the difference with a grocery store?”

With quiet streets, 11 churches and a water tower that dominates the horizon, Baldwin has more in common with the farming communities to its west than with downtown Jacksonville to its east. About 12 years ago, local officials who were desperate for a supermarket agreed to build a store on a vacant lot the town owned so that they would have an easier time attracting grocers. That solution worked until 2018, when the IGA shut down.

The town tried in vain to find another tenant, but the 10,000-square-foot store was too small for a Winn-Dixie or Walmart, and too big for mom-and-pop grocers. Raising property taxes was a non-starter, which meant that so, too, was luring retailers with generous incentives.

Lynch, a retired Navy veteran who grew up in New York, moved to Baldwin with his family in the 1980s when he was stationed in Jacksonville. They decided to stay for the strong public schools and small-town feel, and, after getting out of the service, Lynch went into the restaurant business. Already familiar with drawing up business plans and negotiating with suppliers, he didn’t find it too much of a stretch to do the same for the shuttered grocery store when it closed last year.

Over the summer, after holding several workshops, the town council approved a $150,000 loan from a reserve fund to get the Baldwin Market up and running. There wasn’t much hesitation about getting into the grocery business, Lynch says, since just about everyone was frustrated with the lack of options. The IGA’s former manager gladly took her old job back and resumed her duties as though nothing had changed.

Making the supermarket an extension of city hall did come with some bureaucratic hassles. It was crucial that the store accept EBT cards, but when Lynch went to fill out the paperwork, he was confounded by the fields asking for the first and last name of the person who owned the store. There was no one owner, he explained over the phone to officials in Atlanta — the store belonged to the town.

So far, though, the experiment has been a success. The town council had hoped to take in $3,500 a day, and sales have routinely exceeded that, Lynch says. About 1,600 people — roughly the equivalent of the town’s population — stopped in during opening weekend, according to the Florida Times-Union, and the market sold out of meat. Eight employees, all Baldwin residents, were hired at the outset, but the town recently brought on two more people to help out during the busy holiday season.

As Lynch showed a reporter around on a recent weekday afternoon, a woman in a McDonald’s uniform excitedly interrupted him. “I’m so happy you guys are open,” she gushed. “I was a regular before.” Though she works at the truck stop in Baldwin, she lives in an even more rural community outside of town, she explained, and had been driving 10 miles out of her way on bad roads that always seemed to be under construction to get to the nearest Winn-Dixie. “And their meats are not as good as yours,” she added.

Baldwin is surrounded by farm country, and in late October, local green beans, tomatoes, peanuts, cabbage and milk filled the shelves. Lynch tries to buy directly from local farmers and is working with a fisherman from nearby Fernandina Beach to stock the store with fresh shrimp. Cashiers pass customer requests to the manager, though some residents go directly to the mayor to ask for Lactaid or keto-friendly snacks.

“As long as it’s cost-effective, we’ll put it in,” Lynch said. “Everyone knows it’s their store.”

The Baldwin Market has made life more convenient for people who previously drove into Jacksonville to buy groceries. But the bigger question is whether it can also meet its goal of providing healthier options for cash-strapped residents who relied on McDonald’s and Dollar General.

When the store first opened, online commentators quickly pointed out all the sweetened soft drinks on the shelves. There’s no shortage of sugary cereals, processed meats and beer. Lynch says that the town “didn’t want to start off at a loss dictating what we could sell and what we couldn’t,” since people intent on buying chips and soda would just go elsewhere, and buy the rest of their groceries in the same trip.

Though the Baldwin Market doesn’t need to worry about making a profit, there’s considerable pressure to break even in a notoriously low-margin business. The initial loan from the reserve fund still needs to be repaid, and the council will likely shut down the store after a year if it proves to be a financial drain.

The town-run market also can’t compete with retail giants like Walmart, which Lynch acknowledges can lead to higher-than-average prices, such as $3.99 for a gallon of reduced-fat milk or $1.99 for a 16-ounce Diet Coke. Some residents have taken to the Internet to voice concerns about whether the low-income and elderly people the Baldwin Market is intended to help can afford to shop there.

While the town is figuring out how to balance these competing demands, Lynch has been fielding phone calls from people interested in bringing publicly owned grocery stores to food deserts in their own communities. He’s eager to talk them through the process, and optimistic that Baldwin’s model can be replicated elsewhere.

“Should [local governments] be in private enterprise all the time?” he mused. “Maybe not. But for situations like this, yeah, definitely I believe they should.”

Still, in places where fresh, healthy food is hard to find, it’s more common to see nonprofit organizations respond by opening their own stores, or for residents to band together and form food cooperatives. Often, local governments will lend funding and critical support, and experts are divided on whether there’s an advantage to having the town itself own the store. There’s some dispute over whether residents will have more decision-making power in a co-op, and whether stores created by politicians risk facing closure or severe cutbacks when a new group of elected officials are voted in.

Lang, of The Food Trust, points out that since governments tend to have more resources and be more stable than nonprofits, a municipally owned grocery store could have more longevity than one operated by a community group. Even if the city becomes concerned about the cost of keeping the store open and tries to shut it down, “they could then end up with a whole bunch of angry residents on their hands,” he said. But governments tend to move slowly, he added, where nonprofits can be more “nimble and flexible.”

What’s promising, he and others agree, is that communities struggling to draw a grocery store have another alternative they can consider. Matt Bruenig, the founder of the People’s Policy Project, a socialist think tank, likens it to having a “public option” for health care.

“The idea that a municipality should have to beg private companies to provide basic goods and services to its people is absurd,” he said. “And being able to say ‘we will just do it ourselves’ is very powerful.”