Think Inside The Box

A community farm based in Harlem provides insight on how credit unions can combat financial services deserts.


A few weeks ago, my colleague Leigh Ann Terry wrote about food deserts and the different tactics organizations across the country are deploying to combat this nutritional problem. The approaches and partnerships of the government and private sector have more than a few implications for credit unions that have made it a mission to eradicate nearby financial services deserts.

In “The Oasis Builders,” Leigh Ann draws a parallel between the condensed brick-and-mortar strategies of retailers such as Aldi, Save-A-Lot, and Dollar General and the branch strategies of credit unions that are using remote tellers and in-store branches to break into areas that lack access to healthy, affordable financial services. She also highlights new ways of thinking that helped nimble, innovative organizations succeed in bringing good food to areas where others failed.

But the parallels between Leigh Anne’s Oasis Builders and credit unions don’t end there.

This fall, UTNE Readerran an article — “Let Them Eat Kale!” — from Gristmagazine. Author Claire Thompson describes how Corbin Hill Farm in Harlem is making fresh, local food affordable to area neighborhoods. Using a community-supported agriculture model, Corbin Hill Farm asks its low-income shareholders to pay bite-sized membership fees one week at a time as opposed forking up a wad of dough once a season. It also allows members to use various forms of payments, including food stamps, and members that can’t afford their dues can put their shares on hold. The farm, which is located in upstate New York, relies on a 15-farm cooperative to fill boxes of farm-fresh food for shareholders. Shareholders then choose from 21 sites to pick up their farm boxes, which are customized to appeal to the culinary tastes of the surrounding neighborhoods.

Far from being a solution that benefits only a few residents or lucky communities, the goal of Corbin Hill Farm’s program is to make a large-scale dent in the city’s food deserts. Indeed, the beauty of the model is that others can replicate it.

Corbin Hill Farm isn’t a simple community garden and it isn’t yet profitable. But it is a straightforward solution that people can relate to. Hundreds of shareholders have already chosen this solution over other alternatives. But what can credit unions learn from Corbin Hill?

1. People want healthier options. Make your "fresh" financial services affordable and easier to access than "prepackaged" products such as check cashing, payday lenders, or expensive prepaid debit cards.

2. If you don’t yet have the membership base or resources to support a proper distribution network, then work with like-minded organizations to fill and deliver a healthful box of services that caters to the tastes and needs of shareholders.

3. Understand your target audience and work within its monetary constraints. You might have to adjust pricing or program parameters — and even then members might not be able to use your services all the time — but don’t give up. When they are using your products and services, remind them of the benefits of their healthy choices. When they’re not using your services, be ready to welcome them back with a new plan of how you can prolong their next stint of business.


Nov. 13, 2012



No comments have been posted yet. Be the first one.