When I moved to Park Slope several years ago, the first question everyone asked me was, “Will you join the food co-op?” How could I not? I liked to eat healthy, I needed to save money, and I wanted to put roots down in the neighborhood. For over two years, I worked a three-hour shift each month in return for access to healthy food at low prices. More importantly, I was part of a community: chatting with colleagues from work, bumping into old college friends, and getting drinks with cute, like-minded members.
I’ve since moved too far from Park Slope to participate easily in that unique community democracy that is a food co-operative. It’s true that, compared with farmers’ markets and CSAs, food co-ops are a little unwieldy. To take advantage of the discounts, you need to be a member. And membership has obligations that include donating time and effort.
But food co-ops offer benefits that other healthy, green-minded solutions (like local farmers’ markets and CSAs) can’t. Membership means ownership: a co-op is simply a business owned and managed by its members. This set-up trades profits for lower prices. And because members do the work, there’s no payroll to account for. So prices can be very low indeed!
As a locally owned business, a co-op is an organic part of its community, made up of citizens with a vested interest in the well-being of the business and the neighborhood. Membership is voluntary, participatory, and democratic: unlike your local supermarket, you have a say in how your co-op is run, including what foods it carries.
If you’d like to find a food co-op near you, check out this list. My hometown of New York City is home to four food co-ops. Each has its own structure, as well as its own personality:
• In the shadow of the Bowery Whole Foods, the Fourth Street Food Co-op (E. 4th St. btw. Bowery and Second Ave.) offers a taste of a nearly-gone East Village—once New York’s counter-cultural center for organic markets, vegan restaurants, and indie groceries. This market is open to walk-in customers, but its members get tidy discounts and can choose whether to work a shift or pay dues. The selection is all organic and vegetarian, with the latest produce shipments posted online.
• Brooklyn is home to a pair of food co-ops. The more famous is the Park Slope Food Co-op (Union Street btw. 6th and 7th Ave.). As big as any grocery store in New York, this supermarket offers an astonishingly wide selection. The store gets rapped by cynics for its strict membership requirements: you must work a shift each month or you’re denied entry, and only members may shop! But its rules are more flexible than they initially sound. The Park Slope Co-op’s an essential part of its community and a model for food co-ops around the world.
• Brooklyn’s other food co-op is the Flatbush Food Co-op (Cortelyou btw. Rugby and Marlborough Roads). Serving greater Brooklyn—they conveniently deliver anywhere in the borough—this co-op is one of the most vibrant in the country. Its selection reflects its membership diversity, with a broad assortment of fresh and frozen foods, all organically grown, minimally processed, and purchased from socially responsible companies. Like most co-ops, the Flatbush Co-op welcomes non-members.
• Uptown, the South Bronx Food Co-op (Third Ave. and 158th St.) provides locals with affordable, organic, minimally-processed food. They offer a three-tiered membership program, and if you work extra hours you’re eligible for discount vouchers. It’s a highly participatory co-op, with required attendance at the monthly meeting. The co-op also offers a range of classes, including yoga and cooking.
Depending on where you live, you may find that none of these food co-ops are convenient for you. But don’t just shrug and wait till one opens near you! Instead, follow the lead of these Queens residents, who have banded together to open a new co-op in Long Island City in 2011. Participation is the key to a co-op; joining one (or founding one!) is a smart step to a healthier life and stronger community.
To find your local Food Co-op, try: