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.

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

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.

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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.”

But Park Slope’s success contradicts this conventional wisdom. In time-crunched New York, where many residents rarely cook or launder their own clothes, the concept of volunteering to work at a co-op seems unlikely.

But, Joe Holtz, cofounder and general manager of Park Slope Coop, considers working members as a key to success. All adults in a member household must join, and members cannot buy their way out of working. “After a while, people get used to it, they make friends, and it builds a sense of community,” he says. “We try not to be obnoxious ... but we believe we have a better system than the grocery world.”

A majority of food cooperatives offer member discounts, end-of-year rebates, and opportunities to vote on organizational matters. But they don’t require work for a variety of reasons: a fear of losing customers, a belief that there is too little work to keep members busy, or trepidation over tracking all those shifts. Without member work, however, prices might be similar to – or higher than – those at the supermarket around the corner, keeping local and organic foods out of reach of the budget-minded.

Park Slope’s working-member co-op model is gaining traction. Just this year, member-operated co-ops opened in Emeryville, Calif., and Missoula, Mont.

And in 2006, Chester’s Community Grocery Co-op opened in Chester, Pa., a low-income city where percapita income totals $13,000 per year and residents have lived without a supermarket for more than a decade. Open twice a week, Chester’s has grown to 200 member-households and is looking to expand space, hours, and products.

Not all co-ops are faring as well as Park Slope. The nation’s oldest urban food cooperative, Chicago’s Hyde Park Co-op Market, shuttered in January following an expansion that caused debt to balloon. Its members received 5 percent off retail prices on special discount days and weren’t expected to work.

“The line between co-op and grocer was blurred” at Hyde Park, says James Poueymirou, who was president of the cooperative’s board of directors during its final months. “Had there been a mandatory work contribution, it might have offset some of the difficulties.... People would have felt more a part of the organization.”

Indeed, that’s what makes the Park Slope co-op tick. Once members find their niche – stocking or mopping or running the cashier station – they often display a fierce dedication. Julie Forgione must travel more than an hour to reach the co-op from her home in the Bronx, but to her, the work and commute are no obstacles.

“The prices here are cheaper than anywhere,” she says as she methodically pastes organic stickers to bulbs of garlic. “It’s like heaven.”

For those accustomed to shopping on their own terms, the co-op can be a frustrating place. Members with day jobs can find evening and weekend shifts hard to come by, so some arrange to leave their paying jobs early. Work shifts come with rules, detailed in a 50-page membership manual. During evenings and weekends, lines of shoppers jam the aisles, and members paying with cash, check, or food stamps must bag groceries at one register and pay at another.

But then there are times that affirm just how friendly the co-op experience can be. Leslie Weber, a development director, spots a stack of rhubarb and decides to make a pie. But she can’t remember the recipe. She turns on the intercom, and her voice rings through the store: “How much rhubarb do you need for a rhubarb pie?”

In seconds, other members offer advice, and an office worker searches the Internet for recipes.

Ms. Weber leaves the store with a cart full of groceries, including pie crust and 10 stalks of rhubarb.

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