Hannah Rosenberg/Sun File Photo

Students shop in Anabel's Grocery in Anabel Taylor Hall on Friday, March 10, 2023. The Sun explored the history of the affordable grocery store as shoppers have increased by 50 percent this year.

November 12, 2023

Anabel’s Grocery: A Story of Students Fighting Food Insecurity on Campus

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It is a Wednesday afternoon, and Anabel’s Grocery is buzzing with students filling bottles of kombucha, listening to the pitter-patter of lentils falling into bags and testing the ripeness of avocados. Wednesdays are the first open day of the week for Anabel’s, and already, much of the food stock is being cleared out. 

Tucked away in a corner of Anabel Taylor Hall that formerly housed a library, Anabel’s provides groceries for affordable prices. The store operates as a student-run non-profit grocery store that offers food at subsidized prices to its shoppers. It opened in 2017 after being conceptualized in 2015 in response to food insecurity on Cornell’s campus, specifically following a 2015 Cornell Perceptions of Undergraduate Life and Student Experiences survey in which 22 percent of students responded that they “skipped meals or [did not have] enough to eat because of financial constraints.”

The questions about food insecurity were put in the survey by the original student founders, Matthew Stefanko ’16 and Emma Johnston ’16, who were both members of the Student Assembly. Anke Wessels, visiting lecturer and director of the Center for Transformative Action — an independent non-profit organization that offers aid to sustainable social justice projects, including Anabel’s Grocery — told The Sun that Stefanko and Johnston’s work, along with that of some faculty and staff allies, led to the inclusion of the food insecurity questions, and the later realization that there was a need not being met on Cornell’s campus. 

Stefanko and Johnston ended up developing the idea of Anabel’s Grocery to meet this need. After securing funding from the Students Helping Students Grant Endowment and the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly to cover renovations and start-up funds, as well as the beginning of the subsidy fund, Stefanko and Johnston continued to push Anabel’s through levels of Cornell administration, all the way to former President Garrett.  

A test run in 2016, consisting of a pop-up grocery, received positive feedback from students. However, construction issues caused delays. 

“Delays in the construction process that [were] external to the student involvement in the project, pushed our timeline to opening in the middle of [Spring 2017],” Lizzi Gorman ’18, former co-director of Anabel’s Grocery, told The Sun in Fall 2016. “These delays were driven by unexpectedly high bids from contractors and subcontractors.”

Finally, in Spring 2017, Anabel’s opened. For the first time, they were moving towards their goal of providing food to Cornell students. 

And Anabel’s does not provide just any food. The store provides fresh food from local sources, such as Wide Awake Bakery Bread or greens grown by the Cornell Hydroponics Club, for prices that are much more affordable than they would be elsewhere in the area. Small signs in the store show what shoppers are saving, and the numbers are sometimes staggering, according to Matthew Livingston ’26, who is part of the marketing and fundraising team at Anabel’s. Livingston is currently enrolled in Applied Economics & Management 3385: Social Entrepreneurship Practicum: Anabel’s Grocery. The class is required for everyone working at the store. 

“We started out the semester with 19 cent eggs, which is already unheard of in this country,” Livingston said. “And then recently our subsidy fund allowed us to drop that down to 15 cents. That’s wild to me. An egg for 15 cents, and that’s your breakfast right there.”

Wessels is the professor of the course. When Anabel’s began in Spring 2017, she said, it was hard for all the students to be on the same page. The first year of operations was chaotic, with the students running everything themselves six days a week. There was even one instance of flooding in Anabel Taylor Hall, which delayed their opening in Spring 2018. The team, however, reframed in Spring 2019. 

“It was all volunteers, and it was really hard,” Wessels said. “[They were] all trying to do something with a perishable product, not really having thought it through.”

Problems, Wessels said, ranged from not being able to buy in bulk, to no storage, to organizational issues within the student organizational model. “There was tension.” 

The Spring of 2019 brought much-needed change, according to Wessels. The students figured out a way to buy in bulk while using the subsidy fund to still pay farmers what they deserved for their products, and they scaled back the days open to a more manageable three days a week — which has since increased to four days of operation. The social entrepreneurship practicum class was also developed during that semester, the first academic requirement for Anabel’s Grocery. 

Teagan Smith ’25, purchasing coordinator of Anabel’s Grocery, took the class last spring semester and had a positive experience. 

“The class itself gives students an excellent understanding of how nutrition, food systems and the economy functions, with an emphasis on how social justice within all of those realms works,” Smith said. 

Smith emphasized that the most valuable lessons occurred during the hands-on portions of the class, in handling food, dealing with customer service and hosting events. 

However, despite the formation of the course and the changed organizational structure in Spring 2019, all was not smooth sailing for Anabel’s. In Spring 2020, Covid hit. The store was forced to shut down for the semester. 

“The argument that the administration gave us is that there are food pantries for people in need,” team member Emily Desmond ’21 told The Sun in 2020. “But Anabel’s can provide more than that to students. We provide a lot of educational resources and empower people to feed themselves healthy meals.”

The team pivoted and began to focus on their online offerings, including holding a focus group on where the store can improve, holding online cooking classes and creating an online ordering system with curbside pickup. Eventually, a year after their closing in March 2020, the store was able to reopen

The reopening brought change. In March of 2022, Anabel’s began to accept SNAP/EBT credit in store, creating a direct pipeline to students who experience food insecurity. They also began an anti-racist action fund, which funds student organizations with projects or events that will help create a more equitable campus environment. 

“Through the sale of produce donated from Dilmun Hill and the Hydroponics Club at Anabel’s Grocery, the anti-racist action fund is by students, for students,” Dylan Rodgers ’23, the collaboration and education lead of Anabel’s, told The Sun in 2022. “The fund is managed by students from Cornell 4 Black Lives and Anabel’s who strive to make Cornell a safe and accessible space for BIPOC students.”

The changes seem to be doing well. Since reopening, demand for everything at Anabel’s is growing. Wessels told The Sun that since last fall, the amount of shoppers at Anabel’s has increased by 50 percent. And every semester, Wessels said, there’s more interest in the class than seats available. For it to remain a primarily hands-on experience, only about thirty students can take the course. 

“We’re getting a lot more traction in the store this semester, unprecedented levels of traction,” Livingston said. “So we’re doing something right. We’re really trying to push for the expansion of [the store] and get more people to know about it.” 

Yet with the increased attention, Wessels said that the challenge becomes “evening out” the flow of food. 

“On Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, there’s not an inch to spare, everything’s packed. Everything’s a mess in there because we’re just trying to get all the produce in,” Wessels said. “And then by Wednesday evening, it’s like ‘Wow. Wiped out.’” 

Despite the store’s popularity, promoting the store’s actions is still important. 

“We could do better in terms of spreading the word around campus,” Wessels said. “I think word of mouth is an excellent vehicle for students to know about us, but we want to make sure that the communities that know about us are also the communities who really need us.” 

“We want to get the word out there,” Livingston said. “[We want to] make students aware that we’re Anabel’s — we’re here for you, and we’re here for the community.” 

Anabel’s store hours are Wednesday through Friday noon – 7 p.m. and Saturday noon – 3 p.m. 

Parker Piccolo Hill ’25 is a Sun contributor and can be reached at [email protected].