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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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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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.