Finding Good Food Karma
Why 11,000 New Yorkers give up their time and their egos to eat better for less at the Park Slope Food Coop.
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By: Lee Pinkas
December 20, 2005
It seemed just like all the other natural grocery stores in the city. But as I walked around the aisles of the Park Slope Food Coop, I started to feel a little out of place. For one thing, as a non-member, I couldn’t buy anything. But that wasn’t the only thing on my mind.
Why, I wondered, do all these people with the canvas bags and recycled cardboard boxes look so satisfied? Maybe it’s the 20-40% discount they’re receiving on fresh produce. Or perhaps it’s the rush of fulfillment they feel when working with their hands. Whatever the reason, the Coop must be doing something right; as the largest wholly member-owed and operated food coop in the country, it has been self-sustaining since 1973 and continues to grow its membership. I set out to explore the world of coops and to find out more about their community.
What Do You Mean Coop?
For many of us, the term “coop” (pronounced, co-op) is a vague notion. Put simply, a coop is a business that is owned, operated, and governed by its members. Although a coop may vary in terms of the services provided to its members, four basic features are common to all coops: the coop is owned and operated by its member-owners, it is considered a business, it is democratically governed and as such each member is entitled to one vote, and the coop adheres to internationally mandated standards.
The first successful coop was founded in 1844 in Rochdale, England and serves as the basis for the rules and procedures followed by coops today. In the case of food coops, membership is usually contingent upon a commitment to work a specific number of hours per month. In return, the members benefit from a discount on groceries as well as a say in the governance of the coop. Depending on the coop’s policy, non-members may be allowed to shop at the coop without the discounted member-fee.
The Park Slope Food Coop follows this model and tends to have a fairly strict set of rules governing membership. Non-members are prohibited from shopping at the coop unless accompanied by a member. At the age of 18, members’ children are required to join the coop if they wish to continue to shop there. The coop has worked out an elaborate rotating-week system so member-owners know exactly when they’re supposed to work. Jobs at the coop range from stocking shelves, to construction, to “fun” raising, to working on the periodical. In return for 2 hours 45 minutes of work per month, a one-time membership fee ($25), and a one-time, refundable investment ($100), members enjoy the discounted prices offered at the coop and the chance to be a part of its community.
Beyond the obvious financial benefits, many people are drawn to the Coop because of the philosophy it espouses. According to the membership manual, the Coop serves “as a community center and meeting place for like-minded people: people who believe in the responsibility, value and rewards of collective labor, action, and ownership.” The Coop also offers free art classes and poetry workshops as well as cooking classes with minimal fees to cover supply costs.
The Coop also puts out a biweekly newsletter called “Linewaiters’ Gazette.” The gazette has been cited as a forum for debates and “funny/over the top rantings” that some find amusing. As one former member put it, “the newsletter was sometimes quite entertaining--the royal battles over whether a given manufacturer or food was green or ethical enough.” This amusement factor is paramount; the “Linewaiters’ Gazette is often the only form of entertainment for people waiting on long checkout lines. The situation is not aided by a system that requires members to check out twice.
What the Members Say
Boasting 11,000 member-owners supporting their $20 million-a-year business and a membership list that continues to grow weekly, the Park Slope is doing something very right in a city that thinks of housing prices when they hear the word coop . On a recent visit, I was able to speak first-hand with some of their members.
Barbara, a woman who has been a member of the coop since ’83, has watched the community expand and grow, along with the physical space that houses it. Over the years, she has also seen the coop become more politically divisive. Although she wishes the coop had a wider variety of ethnic foods, Barbara shops at the Coop regularly and takes advantage of the classes and other member activities.
However, when we spoke on a recent Sunday afternoon, she was disappointed that they were out of button mushrooms, mangos, potatoes, and especially garlic. “In all my time shopping here,” she said, “they have never been out of garlic.”
But this same phenomenon was a positive reason to shop at the Coop for another member. At the expense of sometimes being out of certain foods, the Coop is able to achieve, in her words, “good turnover time.” She told us that, “Even the canned goods turn over. They each have their own unique personality and flavor.” This member, who has a 30-40 minute walk to the Coop, was waiting—cardboard boxes in hand—for a car service to pick her up. She told us that she is almost always able to get all of her shopping done at the Coop.
Former Members Ambivalent, Love the Quiche
After posting a Craigslist request for comments on the Coop, we heard from a number of former members whose complaints caused them to cancel their memberships. Interestingly, almost all former members recalled great food and produce, but for one reason or another gave up their membership.
Steve, a husband of a former member said that after his child was born, his wife became too busy to put in her hours at the Coop. If you can’t fit in less than three hours a month in return for substantial discounts and shared ownership of a community-focused business, maybe you shouldn’t be a member.
John, a more querulous former member, was turned off by the attitude of some of the member-owners. “ I quit after I couldn’t take the climate, its pretty ridiculous what goes on, although the organic produce and pricing is really great.” He proceeded to describe a type of “granola” snobbery that made him feel uncomfortable despite his self-proclaimed liberal stance.
While other interviewees agreed that this element exists, for most, it is minimal and was not the main reason they gave up their membership. And even John, after delivering his diatribe, paused and admitted, “they do have really good deals on quiche.”
Is There a Coop in Your Future?
While saving money on quality food has been worth the long lines, the work hours, and perhaps the occasional disapproving eye for many devoted members, the Coop’s only real worry may be the appearance of natural supermarket chains such as Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods in New York. Due to their national buying power, these stores have been able to push the prices down on staple and specialty food items closer to the discounted rates available at the Coop. We aren’t holding our breath to see whether Whole Foods is going to try to compete with the Coop on price, though.
Whatever happens, we expect that the satisfied spirit of the Coop’s members will allow it to continue to grow its membership and remain a leading institution in New York’s food community. In a city that can be so isolating, knowing that your food comes from a supportive community makes all the difference.
The Coop offers new member orientations four times a week. Members who attend the session may also have the opportunity for one free “shop” before they decide to join. But remember not to forget your canvas bag.
The Park Slope Food Coop is located on 782 Union Street in Park slope, Brooklyn, NY. For orientation times and more info go to foodcoop.com/PSFC or call 718.622.0560.