Holly Martin, found of Chattanooga Sustainable Food Center
Problem Addressed Income and wealth inequality, climate change, access to healthcare (nutrition education and fresh foods)
Solution Founded Gaining Ground, a sustainable nonprofit grocery store that serves a marginalized neighborhood
Location Chattanooga, TN
Impact Local, regional

What she did

Holly Martin founded the Chattanooga Sustainable Food Center to build a better food system: one that serves hungry people and local farmers. Gaining Ground, a flagship grocery store, is the first step.

Her story

After years working in local food security, Holly Martin, founded the Chattanooga Sustainable Food Center. Its flagship grocery store, Gaining Ground, provides local produce to the urban food desert of Highland Park.

A lot has changed since Holly Martin’s father was born in Highland Park in the 1950s. Once a middle-class neighborhood, White flight in the 1970s sent property values down and crime rates up. Today, the neighborhood stands at the nexus of the interconnected crises facing American cities.

Median incomes are low, but that’s changing fast, as luxury apartment buildings rise and lower-income residents are pushed out. According to data collected by green|spaces, health and education outcomes lag behind wealthier parts of the city.

And it’s a food desert. Unless they possess a car, residents of the east end of the neighborhood are forced to make the 45-minute trek to Food City — within a more reasonable walking distance, their choices are convenience stores, Dollar General, or, if they’re lucky, a  tienda.

Despite these challenges, Highland Park is a vibrant, diverse, and engaged community. Kids play soccer at Highland Park Commons. People greet each other as they walk past on the sidewalk.

When Martin decided to start a grocery store, the community stood out. “Coming here was sort of a full-circle moment for me,” she says. “It just feels like in a way I’ve come home to it. And, you know, I want to help make it the best that it can be.”

Martin has spent her entire career working in food access. After graduating with a degree in nutrition from the University of Tennessee Chattanooga, she worked as a nutritionist at a local hospital for two years before spending a decade as nutrition and gardening coordinator at the Chattanooga Area Food Bank. She then transitioned to the Main Street Farmers Market, where she worked closely with producers to bring fresh, local food to downtown Chattanooga.

“We had an incentivized program where if you brought your EBT card in and you spent $20, you could get $20 free,” Martin explains. “And it brought a whole crop of people in that I didn’t typically see at the market. And when that funding went away, those people … they went away as well.”

The experience left a lasting impression.

“I saw the food insecurity piece, and then I saw the farmer-producer piece, and I felt like I needed to marry these two somehow”, she says.

She founded the nonprofit Chattanooga Sustainable Food Center (CSFC) in December 2019. “The three main pillars of our organization are food access, education, and engagement with regional agriculture”, she says. “In the research leading up to forming the organization, there wasn’t a piece of it that I felt that I could leave out.”

Originally, she planned to start with organizing fresh, healthy cooking classes from the St. Andrews Center kitchens. When COVID-19 sidelined those plans, she found another way to spread the message.

Gaining Ground Grocery is the CSFC’s first effort. Tucked into a wing of the St. Andrews Community Center, it sells fresh, local produce, select canned goods, and humanely-raised meat and dairy products. In the corner, a bulk section allows customers to bring their own containers for zero-waste purchases of peanut butter, dried beans, and more.

Produce at Gaining Ground

While providing affordable, healthy, sustainable options within walking distance of Highland Park residents was always a priority, the current shape of the store was influenced by community feedback.

“My biggest fear is that this grocery store will cater to the richer side of Highland Park instead of the poorer side”, said one anonymous community member in a survey by CSFC. “I think it is very important to make sure the culture of the grocery is one that is welcoming to low-income folks. The fancier stuff can be intimidating, even if it is just perceived to be expensive, if you are low on funds.”

Martin took that feedback to heart. It involves compromise. “I’m not comfortable selling a $20 chicken,” says Martin. But that’s how much a sustainably-raised chicken costs. For now, more affordable animal products, like locally-produced cheese from Sequatchie Cove Creamery and frozen local sausage, stock the shelves.

Food in the store is not sold at a profit. Potatoes are $1 per pound. Donations of food grown by racial and food justice organization Neema Healing Gardens and other local supporters are available for free for anyone who wants them.

The store is a “bootstrap effort,” says Martin. Martin shares nonprofit consulting skills in exchange for a deal on rent at the St. Andrews Center. All equipment at the store was donated or purchased second-hand.  “I would imagine the cost pales in comparison to what most brick and mortar stores generate as startup costs. We were very thrifty.”

So far, funding has come from a mix of grants, corporate sponsorships, and individual memberships. “If you pay $50 to become a charter member of Gaining Ground, $10 of that goes to what we’re calling a Good Food Fund. That helps with the access piece for low-income neighbors,” explains Martin. Right now, proceeds from the Good Food Fund are going toward a EBT reader.

In the future, Martin hopes to expand the CSFC. “I came to St. Andrews to use their kitchen and start to do nutrition education”, she says. With Gaining Ground as the core, she plans to do much more in the future. Why not a hydroponic farm? A regional produce access network?

These ideas support an overarching goal: taking back our food system, with all the health and environmental benefits that come with that. If that seems ambitious, it is.

45% of Tennesseans eat less than one fruit per day; 24% eat less than one vegetable. Martin would like to see that change, even if it won’t happen overnight.

“How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time,” says Martin.

Written by Ciara McLaren

Published on December 9, 2020

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Holly Martin, interview with Ciara McLaren, Nov 20, 2020

Amir Alakaam and Holly Martin, “Chattanooga Sustainable Food Center: An Overview”, ReSEARCH Dialogue Conference, Apr 15, 2020, https://scholar.utc.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1368&context=research-dialogues, accessed Dec 1, 2020

Drew Charlotte Cutright, “Envisioning Local Food Distribution in Chattanooga, Tennessee”, University of Georgia master’s thesis, 2012, https://getd.libs.uga.edu/pdfs/cutright_drew_c_201205_mepd.pdf, accessed Dec 1, 2020

“Food Access Research Atlas”, USDA Economic Research Service, Aug 26, 2020, https://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/food-access-research-atlas/go-to-the-atlas/, accessed Dec 1, 2020

Jan Blakeslee, “‘White Flight’ to the Suburbs: A Demographic Approach”, Institute for Research on Poverty, Winter 1978-90, https://www.irp.wisc.edu/publications/focus/pdfs/foc32a.pdf, downloaded on Dec 1, 2020

Sean Phippster, “A Walk Through Highland Park”, Nooga Today, Apr 25, 2014, https://noogatoday.6amcity.com/photos-a-walk-through-highland-park/, accessed Dec 1, 2020

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