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Can Co-ops Help Close the 'Grocery Gap'?

by Mike Muller, May 20, 2008
 

For months, an Associated Supermarket in Flatbush, Brooklyn, sat empty with gates pulled tight over its windows, out of business like so many supermarkets across the city. But the demise of this particular store did not mean neighborhood residents would no longer have a place to buy fresh food. Instead, the Flatbush Food Co-op, which had occupied a far smaller space down the block, has brought organic goods, healthy prepared foods and produce to the old grocery store.

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The expansion into a store three times as large represents a giant step for the co-op, which started in the general manager's basement 32 years ago. But it also represents a new era for food co-ops in the city generally.

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Between the Flatbush Food Co-op and the Park Slope Food Co-op, co-ops enjoy record membership levels and sales, veteran managers say. In addition, a number of co-ops are in various stages of formation from the South Bronx to North Brooklyn.

Food cooperatives vary in size, goals and organization, but are generally formed to meet the dietary needs of a given community. Members of co-ops are partial owners and have a say in how the store is run and what is sells. Often, members can trade labor for discounts on the food in the stores.

As demand for healthy and organic food grows while the number of neighborhood grocery stores declines, co-ops are increasingly viewed as a way provide for the community. But co-ops also face a number of hurdles.

The high cost of real estate and low profit margins for food retailers that have forced many supermarkets to close also make it harder for co-ops to start and survive. And the proliferation of health food stores in other parts of the city makes it harder for nearby smaller co-ops to keep their doors open.

A recent report by the Department of City Planning found that communities across the city lack access to good food - something residents of those neighborhoods have been acutely aware of for some time. The report estimated that nearly 3 million New Yorkers live in areas with high rates of diet-related diseases - such as diabetes and obesity - and limited opportunities to purchase fresh, nutritious food. This shortage has helped spur the resurgence in food cooperatives across the city.

The New Guard

"I've never seen anything like what has happened in the last three years," says Joe Holtz, the general manager of the Park Slope Food Coop.

Although there were at least a dozen co-ops in the 1970s, most died during the '80s and '90s. But in the last couple of years, at least five have been formed or are being planned, many in underserved and low-income areas.

The South Bronx Food Cooperative was initiated by Zena Nelson as "a green shopping alternative." Dedicated to "making a difference in the community by working together to provide healthy and affordable food available to all who want it," it opened last year and has about 30 members. The co-op is currently housed in a community center, but is looking into a location of its own.

Eventually, the co-op might play a role in a larger vision. The planned Via Verde project, a nearby mixed-use and mixed-income development, will include a food co-op, and the developers are considering the South Bronx Food Cooperative. Scheduled to open in 2011, the project is meant to represent a new approach to development that takes into account health, the environment, and affordability.

"The planned food co-op will fulfill the aims of affordability and sustainability in a direct and real way," says Neill Coleman, a spokesperson for the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development.

Two Fort Greene residents, DK Holland and Kathryn Zarczynski, are organizing a co-op for their neighborhood. Both are members of the Park Slope Food Co-op and think a co-op would be a good addition to the Fort Greene area, which lacks a supermarket. They have had about 50 potential members show up at each of their meetings, but are still doing outreach to understand what the community would want from a co-op.

The East New York Food Co-op opened in 2006 and has about 50 members. It was formed in order to "actively improve access to healthier, high quality, and affordable foods." But it has had some troubles getting off the ground and meeting expenses. "We're still a work in progress," says Samila Jones-Daley, the founding organizer.

Although the co-op has been open for over a year, it just recently began accepting Food Stamps. The co-op's application to accept the stamps was delayed because of confusion about its status as a non-profit, which fouled up its Food Stamps application. (For state tax purposes, co-ops are considered a non-profit, but on the federal level, they are not.) In a district where nearly half the population receives some form of government income support, accepting Food Stamps is important.

Making Co-ops Pay

Other co-ops have not been able to stay above water. In Bed-Stuy, the Kalabash Food Coop, which was housed at the 123 Community Center, recently closed for restructuring. And although the Harlem Natural Food Co-op has about 80 members lined up, it has yet to find enough grants to open its doors.

Finding money represents a challenge for many of the new co-ops. Even the Flatbush Food Co-op received some assistance with its move. The Flatbush Development Corp. used part its $20,000 Community Block Grant from the federal government to assist the co-op with the expansion.

Money continues to be an issue for the co-op. Many new and old members are excited about the extra shopping space and the wider variety of items in the co-op's new store. "I'm overwhelmed and thrilled. It's really marvelous," says Hilda Weinberg, who is 88 years old and has been a member of the food co-op since 1985. "I've seen members come and go. And now I see some coming back."

But a number of shoppers and browsers noted that the prices are too high -- far exceeding those at grocery stores -- for them to shop there for all of their needs. And many residents miss the old Associated Supermarket. John Michael Rossi, who used to live above the co-op's old store and has since moved to a different neighborhood, said he never joined the co-op because he couldn't afford to shop there regularly. "It was cheaper to shop at the Associated," the he said, adding that if the Associated had closed "when I lived here, the price of our groceries would have doubled."

The extra space will allow the co-op to buy larger orders of many items, which will lower the costs. Barry Smith, general manager of the co-op, also noted that if enough members say they are unhappy about the price of an individual item, the co-op's management team will see what they can do to lower the cost. However, he said, the board and managers do have to make sure the store can survive financially.

Filling the Grocery Gap

As the city confronts the health effects of the "grocery gap," many see food cooperatives as way to improve access to fresh food and think government should do more to encourage the businesses.

"Like supermarkets, Green Carts, farmers' markets and bodegas, food co-ops can be a great way to get affordable, nutritious food into neighborhoods where fresh produce can be hard to find," says Ben Thomases, the city's Food Policy Coordinator.

Holtz thinks the city could help co-ops succeed in underserved neighborhoods. "If the city had a low interest loan program, that would help clear the biggest hurdle," he says.

Indeed, the supermarket report suggests providing financing for private supermarkets and grocery stores in high-need communities as one of its solutions.

"Any financial incentives the supermarket commission recommends to encourage supermarkets to locate in underserved communities should be made to food co-ops as well," Thomases said in an e-mail.

To the adherents, co-ops offer many advantages -- and face challenges -- the more conventional supermarkets do not. The East Village's Fourth Street Food Co-op was started in 1995, replacing another that started in '73. As its neighborhood has thrived, the co-op has fought to survive in the face of intense competition from two nearby Whole Foods, a Trader Joe's and health food stores.

While those larger stores sell organic goods, the co-op's members say that Fourth Street Food does far more.

"Our ethics committee goes through products we currently and potentially will carry in order to ensure the company is a small business with sustainable practices and pays workers a fair wage," says Cassandra Flechsig, a membership coordinator. "None of our products are tested on animals and we purchase organic, local, and fair trade, whenever possible."

She also notes, as do other co-op members, that the issue is about more than shopping - it is also about forming community. "It's easy to get lost in a city as big as New York City," Flechsig said. "The co-op provides a nurturing environment that welcomes new members and makes them feel they belong to something bigger than themselves."

 




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