A group of Williams College students are tapping into a local co-op to provide needy community members with fresh food. A product of Williams’ Kinetic, a student think tank, Suspended Groceries allows shoppers (members and non-members alike) at Wild Oats, a co-op grocery store in Williamstown, to purchase coupons for extra items when they reach the register. These coupons are then distributed at the nearby Berkshire Food Project, whose clients can pick up their free items at Wild Oats.
The program—spearheaded by Jessica Bernheim, Catharine Parker, Meg Richardson, and Lucas Elek—was modeled after Naples, Italy’s Suspended Coffee tradition, in which café-goers can purchase an extra espresso, which is given to a later customer, who simply needs to ask if there is a “caffè in sospensione.”
Although the group’s plan did not initially revolve around partnership with a co-op grocery store, they eventually opted to work with Wild Oats over other more conventional choices.
“Wild Oats had appeal because it has a community approach on health food,” Bernheim said.
Suspended Groceries is furthering the community reach of co-op grocery stores, which are by nature based on community involvement. Food co-ops are locally owned and sell products from local farms and food producers, providing the fresh products typically found at a farmer’s market, with the added benefit of being open every day. Although anyone can shop at the stores, members enjoy the added benefit of becoming co-owners.
Bernheim said Kinetic is looking at other stores to partner with, as well as other nearby food banks, and hopes Suspended Groceries can become a national trend.
The Williamstown, MA initiative comes on the heels of the growing co-op scene—they are difficult to track, since they are not governed by a single institution, but Stuart Reid, director of Minnesota’s Food co-op Initiative, estimates that there are approximately 330 fully functional food co-ops in the country, including 68 founded over the past eight years.
“Co-operatives tend to be very stable organizations in a community,” said Anne Reynolds, assistant director of the University of Wisconsin Center for Co-operatives. “Once created and successful for a few years, they really tend to last. For many communities the independent grocery stores have disappeared, and those communities that have locally owned co-op grocery stores still have them."
David Durfee, general manager of Wild Oats, credits the Williams students for their initiative in finding a way to tackle local food insecurity.