Earlier this year, we spotlighted John Steinman’s Grocery Story, The Promise of Food Co-ops in the Age of Grocery Giants, which shows how food co-operatives (owned by folks in their communities) can provide a way forward toward a more sustainable and just food system. And over the years, we have promoted Food Co-ops as a source of many organic, locally grown fruits and vegetables and other nutritious foods. We’ve emphasized that there is a much greater local impact when food dollars are spent at food co-operatives instead of conventional supermarkets: Purchases locally sourced represent 20% of purchases for food c0-operatives compared to 6% for conventional supermarkets, with local suppliers averaging 157 for food co-operatives verses 65 for conventional supermarkets.
The National Co+op Grocers (NCG), which has a prominent place in the world of food co-operatives, provides business services to 147 independently operated food co-ops, with more than 200 stores in 38 states, with combined annual sales of approximately $2 billion and over 1.5 million consumer-owners. On its website, NCG notes Common Myths About Food Co-ops. Most important: everyone is welcome to shop at nearly all food co-ops (i.e., you don’t have to be member). Somewhat tongue in cheek, NCG adds: you don’t have to be a hippie/liberal/vegetarian/etc. to shop at a food co-op.
The Honest Weight Food Co-op in Albany, New York, one of the 147 independently operated food co-ops which utilizes the business services of NCG, has taken careful steps to continue operating safely during the corona virus pandemic. It communicates often and clearly via social media to its members and shoppers on how it is allowing for proper social distancing to help ensure the health and safety of workers and shoppers.
Most important, it is limiting the number of shoppers in the building at a given time to no more than 50. When queueing becomes necessary, there is a staff person at the door allowing one customer in as one customer exits. But since shoppers have been mindful of limiting their trips to the food co-op, a waiting line of shoppers is not typical. Foot traffic has naturally decreased by more than half. Honest Weight also advises shoppers to “feel free” to call the co-op to find out if there is currently a line.
In a recent email to members, the Honest Weight even shared a chart of its operating hours to show the Best Times to Avoid Crowds. Except for the Senior Discount Day on Wednesdays which have an increase in shoppers (when seniors, 65 and older, are offered a discount of 8% off groceries) from 6:00PM to the closing hour of 8:00PM on all other days the store is operating, there are the fewest shoppers. The busiest hours are on Friday and Saturday, from 8:00AM-10:00AM and in the afternoon from 12:00PM-4:00PM.
Honest Weight is also requiring ALL who enter the co-op to wear a covering over their mouth and nose. Noting that an executive order by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo mandated the wearing of masks in public when in retail stores or when social distancing is not possible, the co-op has provided all its staff and member-owners investing time at the co-op with face coverings.
In addition, as the pandemic has taken hold, the Honest Weight has also completely reorganized some areas of the store to allow for proper social distance while shopping, most notably, its produce department. Aisles are now one-way with markings on the floor to guide shoppers.
The legendary Park Slope Food Co-op in Brooklyn (with its own Wikipedia page) is also one of the 147 independently owned food co-ops which utilizes the business services of NCG. But it is unique among those 147 food co-ops, and is the exception to the rule for co-ops affiliated with NCG that everyone is welcome to shop. At Park Slope Food Co-op, being a “working member” is required to shop there. Many co-ops were based on a similar model in the 1970s, but no longer have that requirement. The Honest Weight Food Co-op in Albany, NY worked hard to preserve its member worker program, now known as a worker owner program which provides worker owners with an additional discount on their purchases (while the store remains open to the public and welcomes everyone to shop at the store).
With over 17,000 members, it’s been reported that the Park Slope Food Co-op has annual sales revenues of $58.3 million with an astonishing $10,000 per square foot (in a store with approximately 6,000 square feet of selling space) in a fascinating article, The Funky Beauty of the Park Slope Food Co-op (12/19/19) by blogger David Bollier. Given the passion and commitment of its members, during the pandemic which has claimed New York City as its epicenter in the United States, sadly the lines to shop at this legendary food co-op can be from forty minutes to three hours long, according to an article, People Are Waiting Hours to Shop at the Newly Struggling Park Slope Food Co-op (4/24/20) by Terri Ciccone in Eater New York.
In striking contrast, in a small town in upstate New York, the Chatham Real Food Market Co-op, a small-scale food co-operative in Columbia County, has curtailed in-store shopping and instead is offering shoppers curbside pickup with advance ordering on-line from its web-store. Noting it is getting grocery and produce items in daily, it also notes that it is seeing a large demand for its curbside pickup. No surprise that many of the items listed under Meat & Fish on its web-store are “Sold Out.” Nonetheless, this small food co-op has found a way to carry on its business during the pandemic in a safe way for its workers and customers.
Similarly, the Wild Oats food co-op in Williamstown (Berkshire County), Massachusetts is offering curbside pickup service for its customers. Although it has not ended in-store shopping, it strongly encourages use of its curbside pickup service to help keep everyone safe and healthy.
Wild Oats is an impressive food co-op which proudly notes that in 2019, it carried over 2,500 different products from local farmers and producers based within 100 miles of Williamstown, representing over $2 million in sales. Its commitment to local and organic food is intrinsic to its business, a praiseworthy model for food cooperatives. And we share its goal to help keep everyone safe and healthy during these challenging times. In keeping with that goal, always good advice to skip the junk food and added sugar in processed foods. Instead: Eat Food, Mostly Plants, Not Too Much, as wisely put by Michael Pollan in his ever important Food Rules.
(Frank W. Barrie, May 1, 2020)