Showing Up: Cooperative Markets & A Little Perspective

Posted by Kate's Real Food on 18th Apr 2016

When I left chic Chelsea for the sticks of Brooklyn, specifically Park Slope, I took my urban exploration very seriously. I refused to cross the East river for anything but work. I became a member of the Park Slope Coop, one of the oldest coops in the country, and as my landlord from back then put it, “one of the last Stalinist regimes still going”. There are many anecdotes about the PSC that help changed my New York experience to a 5 Burroughs affair—but what you need to know is this: I got red listed and eventually got kicked out.

Most Coops across the country are not as stern as the PSC. Many only require membership dues and not work shifts. The severity of my punishment for slacking on my volunteer shifts changed my opinion on efficacy entirely—I will forever feel guilty for not showing up to work my back-stock shifts because the weather was nice and was better enjoyed in Prospect Park. Most of my friends were wondering why I would work at a store once or twice a month anyway. I was living in New York and anything could be delivered to my door nearly twenty-four hours a day. The truth is I am sucker for food. The coop was new turf, one step past shopping the farmer’s market. I wanted to know more about the food system. I wanted to shop with a discount. I wanted better food.

What I didn’t get back then was that good food and affordable prices started with me showing up. Instead I just ate the cake. Didn’t clean up the crumbs and my membership was terminated. I could go pay full price at the Union St. Market or buy bomb shelter food from the bodega around the corner from my apartment but I lost my privileges at PSC.

Years later, I have gotten as intimate as possible with my food. I even married a dairy farmer so I can spend my free time weeding, hacking thistle, grinning and bearing it through long days of work. I need this scab and blister close proximity to food. It makes me feel good to pull my weight and help make things happen. You can’t skip a shift, just go to step five, or find a sub. In order to keep plants growing, animals alive and customers satisfied, you have to show up and do your job. On some level it’s penance for all the skipped shifts at the PSC.

Most people don’t make room for the food system in their daily routines. It’s hard to get a balanced meal let alone tend to a garden or volunteer at a community food hub. Sure it’s a few extra hours of chores every day but the payoff of providing better food for oneself and others exponentially exceeds the time put in when you’re helping to heal people and the planet.

For most, the food system is a real struggle. It’s near impossible to find quality products consistently and when we do find it, it’s a pocket burner of a price or incredibly limited supply. Stores may not be willing to research traceability and production. Co-op’s offer the opportunity to to find a solution within a broken structure so all incomes can eat well. Take a look at some of these stats from the FDA:

“It’s no secret that, despite being the wealthiest nation on Earth and a leader in agricultural exports, many residents of the United States regularly experience hunger and food insecurity. Even so, it’s often shocking to hear that one in seven American households (14.3%) experienced food insecurity in 2013, with another 5.6% of households classified as having “very low food security”, according to the USDA. At the root of American hunger is poverty, which describes the economic circumstances of approximately 16% of Americans. These same households struggling with poverty and hunger are also more likely to suffer from obesity." ~ from the Cooperative Development Institute

The food system obviously doesn’t work if it can provide across the board. A cooperative market aims to get quality products into the hands of those who need it most—everyone. Here’s the seven guiding principles to cooperatives. They seem altruistic but there are thousands of coops across the country that make it happen every day:

1) Voluntary and Open Membership

2) Democratic Member Control

3) Member’s Economic Participation

4) Autonomy and Independence

5) Education, Training & Information

6) Cooperation Among Cooperatives

7) Concern for Community

At Kate’s Real Food, we get the opportunity to work with all sorts of food hubs and outlets across the country. Coops are driven by passion and the desire for a better food system. We checked in with managers from Daily Groceries, Oceanna Foods and the Moscow Coop on the importance of Co-op’s in their communities:

From Jess Cross, MSW at Daily Groceries

1) What’s the most important part of cooperative practice for you? Putting People First!

2) What’s the difference between other markets and your coop? They are (mostly) owned by huge multi-national Corporations with all of the profits going to top CEO's we are owned by over 1000 local community folks and all profits go back into the community in the form of livable wages, local farmers who we buy from, donations to our many community partners, etc.

3) Is the food selection better at a coop, why? YES! We carry the MOST local products of any grocery store in the area this means: local and fresh produce, farm fresh eggs(!), artisanal breads, locally roasted fair trade coffee, the list goes on! Nothing beats the taste of fresh.

4) What do your customers and members say about the coop in your community? Our customers love that they never have to worry about the ingredients in the food they purchase with us they can shop quickly without having to worry about the fine print.

5)What’s the best part of working at a coop? The loving community! Collaboration!

6) What about food and grocery shopping has changed since you started working at your coop? I understand that in order to make the foods we carry more affordable for EVERYONE, we will have to grow so that we can get bulk discounts from our distributors. My shopping hasn't necessarily changed, but my drive to bring this good food to everyone has strengthened.

From Rhonda Fry, Manager at Oceanna Foods

1) What’s the most important part of cooperative practice for you? The most important part of cooperative practices for me is that we can practice, on a small scale, what we want the world to be like. All people are treated with respect, staff are paid a fair wage, and we resolve our issues by talking them over and coming to positive solutions.

2) What’s the difference between other markets and your coop? All of the following, not in any particular order of importance: we recycle all of our "waste", including passing on all of our Organic produce scraps for animal feed. We carry only Organic produce. We carry only shade grown coffee. We consider fair trade, child labor, and other issues when making our product selections. We have shelf labels for products that are NonGMO Verified. We solicit customer product suggestions and often have that product on the shelf within a week. We also let our members special order products at a discounted price, whether we carry that item in the store or not.

3) Is the food selection better at a coop, why? The food selection is better at our store because we have a product mix specifically for our customers.

4) What do your customers and members say about the coop in your community Our customers say that we have the best salad bar and hot bar in town. Many our salad bar and hot bar ingredients are organic and every item has an ingredient card showing which ingredients are organic. Our customers often comment that they couldn't live in our town if the coop did not exist.

5)What’s the best part of working at a coop? The best part of working at the coop, for all staff members, is that they have a say in many areas including product selection, back-stock storage arrangement, etc. Their opinion is always valued. Also, all staff members who work 30 hours a week or more have health insurance through their job here. Staff members are assured that there will be reasonable accommodation for time off for their life outside the store. Staff members may have time off if they find someone to work their shift. So far it has always happened.

6) What about food and grocery shopping has changed since you started working at your coop? Since I started working at the coop 25 years ago there has been a lot more selection of packaged food. Since customers have so many choices in the marketplace, they expect more choices of everything. There is also a larger selection of Organic produce, and the quality is much better. Customers have also learned more about the state of nonorganic food and have more incentive to select better quality food. Thankfully, many manufacturers have grown over the years and ample quantities are available to supply these new customers.

Alex Bramwell, Buyer at Moscow Food Coop

1) What’s the most important part of cooperative practice for you? An important Cooperative practice for me is to source local, fair trade, ethical and organic products whenever possible. As a buyer, I get to take part in these decisions. If I have two similar products, and one of them is fair trade, that is the one I will pick, even though it will likely be a little more expensive.

2) What’s the difference between other markets and your coop? Many other markets tend to focus only on how much profit they can make. While here at our coop, profit is important for the sake of staying in business, but we often take a smaller profit in order to better serve the employees or the community.

3) Is the food selection better at a coop, why? I feel like the coop has a great food selection. It is much easier to eat healthy at the coop than at conventional grocery stores. For one, we do not carry anything that contains high fructose corn syrup, or many other ingredients that are potentially harmful. At a conventional grocery store, you really need to check the labels of nearly every product because most of their products contain HFCS (high fructose corn syrup), or artificial food dyes (yellow #5 etc. (also a banned ingredient at the coop)). In our particular store, I feel like the biggest limiters for our selection is space, and sourcing. Our store is small for the amount of customers we serve, and we simply cannot get some items in our store because of blacklisted ingredients and there is not an organic substitute from our supplier.

4) What do your customers and members say about the coop in your community? There are many who say that the coop is the key stone to the community, or one of the most important businesses down town.

5)What’s the best part of working at a coop? There are many benefits to working at our coop. It is hard to pick the "best" one, but here are a few. I get a large discount on everything in the store for working here. we also get SOO much free stuff. for example, many of the foods cooked from scratch in our deli are offered to staff for free when it can no longer be sold in the deli. Meats that would be thrown away at other stores, due to being past the 'sell by' date, get marked down (or freed out) and frozen in the staff freezer. I have bought steaks that should have been $18 for around $4.

6) What about food and grocery shopping has changed since you started working at your coop? I am more careful about what I buy, there are some products that I almost refuse to buy anywhere else, like pickles for example. I cannot find pickles at the conventional grocers that do not have yellow #5, and I don’t even have to worry about that here because it is a banned ingredient.

Conclusion: I am not alone. Years after I moved to Idaho, I read an op-ed in the NYTimes from a MFA student at Hunter College and her troubled relationship with the Park Slope Coop, and how she too was kicked to the curb for not pulling her weight. If I ever move back to Park Slope, I am joining the Coop again. Thankfully, all my farm chores have improved my capacity for responsibility. Bagging groceries and breaking boxes seems pretty mellow and nice way to spend an afternoon with a neighbor.