The interior of a small grocery shop with a worker in an apron and a customer wearing a backpack, looking at produce.

Student-Run Grocery Store Offers Fresh Food at Affordable Prices

Featuring many items from Ithaca-area producers, market in Anabel Taylor Hall has both a social mission and a pedagogical aim

Grad student Ludovico Cestarollo hails from the north of Italy, and he’s happy to admit that he hews to a certain culinary stereotype: like many of his countrymen, he’s a passionate home cook who savors simple but delicious meals made from fresh, locally sourced ingredients.

And when Cestarollo—a third-year PhD student in materials science—goes shopping, he doesn’t have to wander far from the Engineering Quad. He’s a regular customer at Anabel’s Grocery, a student-run market housed in nearby Anabel Taylor Hall. “It’s awesome,” he says. “The students who work there are very nice, and I always find what I need. And knowing that a lot of the food is from Cornell or places nearby makes me feel good.”

The sign for Anabel's Grocery outside Anabel Taylor Hall.
The store is housed in Anabel Taylor Hall, also home to Cornell United Religious Work. (Photo by Jason Koski / Cornell University)

Overseen by the Center for Transformative Action (CTA)—a nonprofit affiliated with the University that works for positive social change—Anabel’s is open three afternoons a week this semester; while its focus is on serving undergrads and grad students, all members of the Cornell community are welcome.

A subsidy fund, approved by the Student Assembly when the project was green-lit by the University in 2015, allows many items to be sold below cost. “It has a homey atmosphere and the prices are reasonable, so it’s easy to get produce without killing my bank account,” says another frequent customer, science and technology studies major Lorlei Boyd ’23. “The seasonality that’s reflected in the produce is one of the biggest attractions. It feels very thematic to Cornell to be in tune to what’s going on around us.”

A focus on fresh local, food

On a Thursday afternoon this fall, Anabel’s is hopping: two students serve as cashiers while shoppers mill about the small store, a former library space on the first floor of Anabel Taylor.

While most U.S. grocery stores put perishables around the periphery and shelf-stable goods in the center, Anabel’s flips that equation: dominating the room is a display featuring apples from Cornell Orchards and a variety of other produce, much of it—including the eggplant, peppers, and squash—grown at the student-run Dilmun Hill Farm. The wares mainly reflect the bounty of Upstate New York in fall, but there are also offerings (like lemons and bananas) sourced from farther-flung suppliers.

Two bins of apples and a bunch of basil
The apples and basil are grown on campus. (Photo by Jason Koski / Cornell University)

Against the walls, in glass-front freezers and refrigerators, are products from local purveyors including cheese, yogurt, beef, and tofu. The store’s crusty boules come from an artisanal bakery that routinely sells out at the Ithaca Farmers Market (but here, it’s offered at roughly half the price). The basil was grown by the Cornell Hydroponics Club; the maple syrup was tapped from Big Red trees.

“Traditionally, when you’re working for a brand or retailer, the focus is on the bottom line,” observes Amanda Hartman ’22, a policy analysis and management major who’s in charge of PR and marketing for the store. “At Anabel’s, we’re a nonprofit. So we can focus on, ‘How can we provide the best possible food for the Cornell community? How can we encourage people to eat better?’ We’re not trying to make money; we’re here to give back.”

Aiming to do good

Anabel’s missions also include supporting antiracism efforts: for instance, proceeds from the sale of the Dilmun Hill produce and Hydroponics Club greens go to a grant fund administered by Cornell Students for Black Lives.

Another key aim is to alleviate food insecurity. As the University’s biannual Cornell Undergraduate Experience Survey found in 2019 (the most recent year for which results are available), a small but significant number of students report “occasionally,” “often,” or “very often” not eating as much as they feel they need; their reasons include financial constraints and a lack of transportation to off-campus grocery stores.

One of our taglines is ‘Fresh, nutritious, affordable food for all.’ While we’re aiming to combat food insecurity, we also want everyone to feel welcome.

Nat Rosier ’22

“One of our taglines is ‘Fresh, nutritious, affordable food for all,’” says Nat Rosier ’22, an ILR student who serves as Anabel’s “people lead” (essentially, the head of human resources). “While we’re aiming to combat food insecurity, we also want everyone to feel welcome. Regardless of background, race, ethnicity, or anything else, we want you to come in and feel excited to shop.”

Anabel’s has a pedagogical angle, too: to work in the store, students have to be enrolled (or have previously taken) a course in applied economics and management titled AEM 3385: Social Entrepreneurship Practicum. Taught by Anke Wessels, the longtime executive director of CTA, the course explores inequities in the food system—and how enterprises like Anabel’s can help combat them.

Anke Wessels (right) teaching a class of students.
Anke Wessels (right) teaching AEM 3385. (Photo by Jason Koski / Cornell University)

While the three-credit class (TA’ed by Rosier this fall) takes a deep dive into such issues as how structural racism impacts the food system, Anabel’s offers hands-on experience in running a small-scale grocery store.

“They learn practical skills—how to take inventory and how that informs purchasing; how to develop a good marketing campaign; how to staff and cope with everybody’s schedules; how to work with a team,” says Wessels, also a visiting lecturer in the Dyson School. “We have a big conversation about, ‘How do you create a culture where people can feel like they belong, and where they can be vulnerable and honest, so we can build trusting relationships and support each other?’”

Tips for novice cooks

On top of its other goals, Anabel’s aims to be a venue for food education and community building: it hosts free dinners (also a way to use up unsold produce) as well as online cook-alongs. And it posts recipes in the store—offerings have included overnight oats and pattypan squash pizza—that shoppers can photograph. “I think a lot of college students see zucchini and they’re like, ‘What do I do?’—they’re intimidated,” Hartman says. “So we’ll suggest things they can make.”

Since its initial launch in 2017, Anabel’s has experienced some ups and downs, and it closed for part of 2019 to rethink its organizational structure. And like retailers everywhere, it has coped with pandemic-related disruptions. It was shuttered along with the rest of campus in March 2020 before reopening for online ordering (with in-person pickup) nearly a year later.

bulk bins of beans and other dry goods
Bulk bins allow shoppers to choose their own quantities. (Photo by Jason Koski / Cornell University)

While this fall has marked a welcome return to in-store shopping, it has also meant struggling with COVID-era supply-chain issues. In charge of purchasing is Alyssa Gartenberg, a master’s student in natural resources. She has overseen the addition of popular items like Tony’s chocolate bars (a brand known for ethically sourcing its cocoa) and—in response to customer demand for grab-and-go foods—a line of frozen, microwavable burritos made from all-natural ingredients.

“It has been interesting to see the immediate input and output,” Gartenberg says. “If I forget to order something or I miss a deadline, it has real repercussions: we don’t have that item in the store. Anabel’s really does operate as a living, changing learning lab.”

Top image: Shopping for groceries at Anabel’s. (Photo by Jason Koski / Cornell University)

Published November 3, 2021


Comments

  1. Lynn Rhenisch, Class of 1972

    I think this is terrific! What a wonderful wonderful thing to establish. How I wish I had had this available to me when I attended 1968-1972. That Anabel’s is a non-profit and is used as a teaching and learning resource while incorporating and supporting local producers and addressing structural racism and economic inequalities is truly brilliant. May it thrive.

    Way to go, Cornell and Anabel’s. I’m proud to be an alumna!

    • Anke Wessels

      Thank you, Lynn! This project is actually possible thanks, in large part, to a legacy of your time at Cornell. Anabel’s exists under the nonprofit umbrella of the Center for Transformative Action, a separate 501(c)3 affiliated with Cornell. The center was established in 1971 (then called the Center for Religion, Ethics, and Social Policy)to provide a home for the social justice work arising from students and chaplains (e.g. Dan Berrigan) in Anabel Taylor Hall at that time. Fifty years later, CTA continues to foster and support a wide variety of social justice initiatives in the Ithaca area and NYC; and Cornell is the only major university affiliated with a nonprofit incubator!

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