Why People Are Attracted to Food Co-Ops

Recently, I visited the Park Slope Food Coop, but only under enforced regulations: I was to be accompanied by a member and I was not permitted to shop.

apples, oranges, pomegranates, melons, labels

Shopping, coupled with the fantastic prices, was a privilege for members because they put in the work — an understandable rule. As I perused the aisles, I was surprised by the gregarious nature of the co-op. One white-bearded man noticed a woman looking at items in the refrigerator section.

“This,” he said, picking up a container off the shelf, “is the best vegan butter I’ve ever had.” She took his word and placed it in her shopping cart.

Another co-op member, grocery shopping for her husband and two sons, grabbed two soft pillows of pizza dough and a block of farmer’s cheese from a shelf in the refrigerator section.

“I save about $4,000 a year by shopping here. I calculated it,” she said to another woman.

This communal element does not exist in major grocery stores. Go up to a stranger in Whole Foods and recommend he try the pumpkin seed granola, and be prepared for an eye roll.

At the checkout station cashiers and members greet one another with a smile.

“What are you making?” a cashier asked a woman as he scanned her groceries.

“Kugel,” she said. “My sons love it.”

Since 1973, the Park Slope Food Coop has prided itself on wholesome products sold at honest prices, and is proudly advertised as “New York City’s most successful supermarket [that] has zero customers and 17,000 workers.” Members of the coop are required to work thirteen 2.75 hour shifts a year. Through these shared responsibilities, the co-op is able to keep its prices low — 20% above wholesale — compared to corporate monopolies where organic foods and produce tend to hike.

Kombucha, in particular, boasts a comparatively lower price tag at the Park Slope Food Coop. GT’s Enlightened Organic Raw Kombucha and Health-Ade Kombucha sell at $2.62 and $2.77, respectively, compared to a $3.99-$4.99 price tag at grocery stores.

I have vivid memories of the late 90s where I’m sitting at the kitchen table with my mom and brother, clipping and organizing coupons in an accordion-like envelope. These coupons dictated how we ate, when we ate and what we ate.

The reality is people still grocery shop on budget, and oftentimes sales and coupons do not consider nutritional value.

The reality is people still grocery shop on budget, and oftentimes sales and coupons do not consider nutritional value. Because it offers affordable prices seven days a week, the Park Slope Food Coop never needs to promote sales. It does, however, accept coupons from anywhere so long as they match the items sold at the co-op. Coupons that match co-op projects are rare, though.

One of its biggest attractions is the produce section. Because profit margin is not what dictates the co-op’s purchasing decisions, it’s able to offer varieties that aren’t in traditional grocery stores; for instance, uglifruit, limequat and nopales. Rows of neatly stacked okra, bell peppers, blood oranges, kumquats, lemons and fuji apples create an enticing rainbow and is one of the main reasons why members initially join. The co-op mostly sells organic fruits and vegetables, except when the price value is out of reach for consumers.

If the Coop believes the price of its organic limes, for example, is too expensive, it sells both the conventional and organic options. Because organic lemons and garlic are — by default — expensive, both options are always offered as well.

I wish the corner fruit store in my neighborhood followed this model. It only sells organic fruits, and when strawberries and blueberries are sold at $6.99 a container, I have to look elsewhere for my vitamin C and antioxidant intake.

It’s incredible to consider how each of the Park Slope Food Coop’s 15,000 items are carefully chosen by trained committees who focus on factors such as affordability, locale and environmental impacts. One committee, the Animal Welfare Committee, is comprised of members who visit local farmsteads and interview farmers and vendors about the methods they practice on their livestock. This vetting is to certify that the meat, dairy and personal care products the co-op sells follow proper guidelines and, ultimately, are conducive to a moral well-being.

In regards to the environmental hazards that currently affect society, the Environmental Committee dedicates its energy to educating co-op members on a variety of issues from ways to protect children from common environmental toxins to DIY non-toxic cleaning products. Through social media platforms, committee meetings and analytical reports that appear in the co-op’s bi-monthly newsletter, Linewaiter’s Gazette, the committee keeps members informed and helps spread awareness.

The black and white pages of the Gazette provide a number of benefits for the co-op community. It boasts advice from Co-op Meat Buyer Margie Lempert, community events, as well as a Letter to the Editor section where members can voice their opinions on issues like GMOs and plastic packaging reduction.

In the November issue, just in time for Thanksgiving, an ad thanked those who had participated in a local food drive that collected 52 banana boxes “filled to the brim” with food for the less fortunate. The Gazette also educates its audience on how to buy fruits and vegetables in the approaching cold winter months, along with a list the vitamins that each boasts.

While shopping at the co-op, members can either purchase mason jars or bring them from home to fill with bulk dried fruit or grains and cut down on packaging waste. Although plastic bags are not yet banned in the five boroughs, the co-op does not use them. The produce bags, however, are a topic of controversy and might be banned from the co-op in the imminent future. But for the most part shoppers fill canvas or muslin bags with their items.

One potential problem is many people have trouble carving out time to work a three-hour shift. They could avoid the work by having a friend or nanny sub in for them, and they might not get caught. Nonetheless, the Park Slope Food Coop works diligently at ensuring its members abide by rules both honestly and ethically.

People may also be turned off by the one-time $25 fee and the $100 member investment fee that protects a person’s rights as an owner of the co-op. But the $100 investment fee is fully reimbursed if members decide to leave the co-op. For those on income-based public assistance, fees are drastically reduced from $25 to $5 and $100 to $10.

Most importantly, the co-op doesn’t discriminate. Jobless and retired people can join and gain a sense of meaning and purpose that brings joy to their lives. The co-op is bent on building connections and respecting the environment. As long as individuals agree with this mission, they are welcomed to join.

Another benefit of the co-op is that members, either working a shift or shopping, may drop off their kid(s) at the on-premise childcare room. Members who enjoy working with children may fulfill their shift requirement as a childcare worker.

The cart return service further exemplifies the co-op’s generous nature. A “walker” accompanies members and their loaded carts to parked cars within a specified radius and then brings the cart back for the next person to use. Those with the gift of gab or those who clock in 10,000 steps a day would make ideal walkers. By catering to a plethora of interests, the Coop succeeds at making a “job” fun.

French film director Tom Boothe first learned about the Park Slope Food Coop in 2009 while visiting friends in Brooklyn. Inspired by its mission and model, he made a documentary called “Food Coop” and opened La Louve, Paris’s first collaborative supermarket. Soon after, countries such as Belgium followed suit, and the co-op movement no longer was solely an American concept.

While I made my way to exit the co-op, I began to mentally rearrange my work and personal schedules, looking for openings so that I could pencil in my ensuing member duties. I felt a need, a want, to be part of place where simple pleasures like recommending new foods and cooking tips were the norm. I want to not only coexist among my family and friends, but also among my neighbors. In a city with four million people, this sense of community becomes of great importance.

It’s no secret that synthetic hormones and other ingredients in processed food can deteriorate the body, but it can be difficult for people to afford natural, healthy groceries. Organic food should not be esoteric or reserved for those with deep pockets; honest food should be affordable to all. When it is not, what is implied is that only the more financially apt have access. Places like the Park Slope Food Coop advocate such claims, and one need not look any further than the 17,000 people who make up this unique community.

Likewise, Public Goods makes natural and healthy food products both affordable and accessible by using a membership model. There are two key differences, however: you won’t need to work any shifts, and our store is online. After all, not everyone lives in Brooklyn.

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