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Deals on meals at do-it-yourself grocery

Members of Brooklyn’s Park Slope Food Coop slash their bills for locally grown and organic foods – in exchange for labor.

By Kelly StewartContributor / September 9, 2008

Working for food: Jazz musician Michael Bates (right) volunteers, unpacking produduce alongside a paid worker, at the Park Slope Food Coop.

Stephanie Keith/Special to the Christian Science Monitor

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Just after sunrise on a warm Monday morning, Michael Bates tucks his skateboard under one arm and descends into the basement of his local grocery store to start his shift as a receiving worker. Dressed in an old T-shirt and shorts, Mr. Bates pulls on a pair of padded orange gloves and greets co-workers, who today include a librarian, a comic-book writer, and a magazine editor.

“What are you guys waiting for?” calls out Guadalupe Rosales, a petite, curly-haired supervisor on the crew.
She punches a button, and a conveyor belt transports a trail of boxes into the basement. Salsa music blares from speakers as the small crew gets into a groove, sliding cartons of coconut juice, dishwashing liquid, and macaroni and cheese along abacuslike tracks to categorize them by store aisle. Soon the workers are breaking a sweat, stacking crates of toilet paper, cat food, and cereal around the room.

Bates, a bespectacled jazz musician, isn’t working a day job to earn extra money. He’s doing it to save money. He and just about everyone here at the Park Slope Food Coop works without pay – and most do it with a smile. In exchange for 2.75 hours of labor a month (plus a $25 joining fee and a $100 refundable investment in the organization), Bates and his fellow members may shop at the cooperative, which charges a minimal markup on wholesale grocery prices.

Unlike most other food co-ops around the country, member-staffed organizations are able to charge far less by eliminating high labor costs that amount to 70 percent of a traditional supermarket’s overhead. They offer local, organic produce from nearby farmers, proving that healthy, natural food doesn’t have to be a luxury. Most members estimate 30 percent to 40 percent savings on their grocery bills.

Bates, for example, works two hours and 45 minutes every other Monday (he works his wife’s shift in addition to his own). In return, he is able to shop whenever he wants for cheap groceries. The price difference between the co-op and nearby Key Food, for example, can be dramatic: A pound of organic plum tomatoes at the co-op two weeks ago was $1.51 versus the supermarket’s conventionally grown plum tomatoes at $1.59 per pound; organic romaine was $1.01 per pound at the co-op while Key’s conventionally grown romaine cost $1.79 per pound; and the co-op had a dozen local cage-free eggs for $1.90 compared with the supermarket’s dozen cage-free eggs for $4.99.

At Park Slope, the largest and longest-running member-operated cooperative in the country, membership is climbing. Just five years ago membership stood at 10,700 and sales were $19.4 million – this year the membership rolls reached 13,500 with projected sales of $35 million.

Since the 1980s, the number of co-ops nationwide has remained around 300, but in the past three years there has been an upswing in interest, says Stuart Reid, development specialist at the Food Co-op 500 Program, which offers funding and technical advice to start-ups. “There’s somewhere between 60 and 100 groups that are trying to organize stores right now,” he says.

The current rush to co-ops, says Kate Evanishyn, a spokesperson for the food education organization, Slow Food USA, stems from a growing interest in learning where food comes from and what it’s made of. Michael Pollan’s best selling book, “In Defense of Food,” advised readers not to eat anything their great-grandmothers wouldn’t recognize as food. Wal-Mart and other large supermarkets now routinely trumpet local, organic offerings.

But working at co-ops is also a way to save as grocery prices increase. In July, US shoppers paid 6 percent more for food than a year ago, according to the US Labor Department’s Consumer Price Index, which tracks a market basket of goods that most people buy.

Although member-operated co-ops offer cheaper groceries, experts recommend that new co-ops hire paid staff. “Professionally run stores are better for the long term,” Mr. Reid explains. “It’s very important for a grocery store to have high standards of service and accountability to compete in the marketplace.”

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