Baldwin opens rare town-run grocery store to fill food gap


The town in southwestern Duval County lost its sole full-service grocery store when IGA closed a year ago. So Mayor Sean Lynch and the Town Council decided to become grocers and reopened the former IGA store — the property was owned by the town — to provide fresh food for its residents.

When the IGA in Baldwin closed a year ago, leaving the town of about 1,500 people with no grocery, Mayor Sean Lynch and the Town Council tried to find a replacement.

But there were no takers.

The big-box chains said the 10,000-square-foot IGA space was too small, and mom-and pop-type merchants said it was too big. Meanwhile, residents had to drive 10 miles to Macclenny or 20 miles to Jacksonville to buy fresh food. Many of the town’s seniors and poor residents were unable to make the trip.

Baldwin, in southwestern Duval County, became a so-called food desert, a community with limited access to affordable, healthy food.

So in July, Lynch and the council decided to become grocers — possibly the only local government in the country to do so — and opened the town-owned and operated Baldwin Market.

The city already owned the store formerly occupied by IGA and the land under it, at U.S. 90 and U.S. 301. All it had to do was staff and stock. The store had a soft opening Friday, a grand opening Saturday and has seen a steady stream of customers since then. Sixteen-hundred people visited the store Friday through Sunday, Lynch said.

“It was fantastic,” Lynch said. “A little more than I expected.”

Two sections were particularly popular — the meats, which sold out the first day, requiring a resupply from a local butcher — and fresh vegetables, he said.

The store is a business, not a nonprofit. The goal is not to make a profit, but to make sure residents have access to fresh food, Lynch said. The council took $150,000 from a reserve fund to hire staff, pay food vendors and rehab the refrigeration system and it plans to repay the money in monthly installments. After the debt is paid, profits will be plowed back into the business, he said.

Lynch is optimistic the store will continue to be a success.

“Everybody wanted it … It was important to the local people,” he said.

Esther and Bill Atkins, who live just outside the town limits, shopped in the store Saturday. They went just to check it out and get enchiladas but ended up buying $55 worth of groceries, Esther Atkins said.

“I was happy to see something back in Baldwin,” she said. How the town tackled its food desert status, she said, was “amazing.”

“It was well-stocked … they used a lot of local farmers and vendors.” Also, prices were “compatible” to that found in Walmart or other stores miles away, she said.

Baldwin Market will be particularly welcome to the town’s low-income residents, many of whom can’t afford to drive to other communities, she said.

The council’s decision to solve the problem itself also won praise from Feeding Northeast Florida, a Jacksonville-based regional food bank.

“We are committed to a hunger-free community,” said President/CEO Susan King. “We support innovative ideas to meet community need and are hopeful the Baldwin Market will fill the grocery store void in the city.”