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Food Coops: Are They All They’re Cracked Up to Be?

A quart of organic blueberries: $2.93.

A half gallon of local, organic milk: $1.55.

A pound of locally grown apples: $2.

Knowing that you’re eating healthy food and saving money? Priceless.

Watch out Whole Foods. This Coop is still hopping. I visited my old Brooklyn neighborhood recently to explore the idea of food coops. I have yet to find one in my new neighborhood (about an hour away). The whole notion of food coops is not new. In the 1960s and earlier, food coops were springing up all over the place.

As I entered, I thought I’d come upon a candy store in disguise. Everything looked delectable. I felt like a young, gushing girl on her first date. The food looked fresh and scrumptious and the prices were incredibly reasonable. There were definitely fewer choices, which to me, is a positive thing. As I’ve learned, the abundance of food choices at large grocery stores does not equal quality foods.

Whole rows of bulk food lined the aisle: close to fifty bins of cereals, whole grains, and any kind of nut my heart desired was on display. They had cereal that is nutritious. There was a plethora of boxed varieties, too, with brands such as Kashi, Arrowhead Mills, Nature’s Path, Barbara’s Bakery, Erewhon, and Peace. Not all are truly organic mind you. You still need to do the research. (For more on organic food, see “What is Organic?” by Midori Nakamura.) There were fewer of the mainstream varieties, but if you like Cheerios and Rice Krispies, you’re all set.

I marveled at the cheese area. It was no Murray’s Cheese Shop or Fairway for that matter, but unlike a typical grocery store, it had many kinds of “stinky” or French cheese at reasonable prices, as well as cheeses from local cheese purveyors in New York. You could also find Castle Rock Raw Goat’s Milk from Wisconsin for a mere $4.21. (In large grocery stores, it’s about twice that.) A half pound of Manchego went for $3.70; a half pound of Spanish goat cheese went for just under $3, about half the price of a fancy cheese store. A pound of olives cost less than $4. Although there was no meat counter (I prefer the butcher anyway), the packaged meats they did display were exclusively organic.

Throughout the store, there was an emphasis on local foods, as well as organic. Even in the cookie aisle, you could find homemade chocolate chip brownies and oatmeal raisin cookies from area Brooklyn bakers (not just Pepperidge Farms).

The overall cleanliness of the store seemed average to me, though the produce seemed fresher than anything I’d ever experienced in large grocery stores.

Interestingly, I was also amazed at the information throughout the store. For example,  if you’re buying organic Gala apples, the sign tells you the price, a description of the kind of apple, as well as the origin of the fruit: in this case, Hepworth Farms, New York. There were articles displayed everywhere on recycling and ideas for sustainable living. One sign above a display of oranges talked about the problems orange growers were experiencing in Florida. Learning about who grows my food and what they contend with as farmers is unheard of in most grocery stores. It makes me think more deeply about the origin of food as well.

As I wound through the aisles, I found myself getting bumped a lot. I guess food coop shoppers and workers are not going to be nicer than the people who shop at the local grocery store.

What are some other downsides? Some members spoke to me, but wanted to remain anonymous. According to one longtime member, Sarah, “Lines are typically longer on the weekend.” She prefers to shop on off-hours midweek, knowing that she’ll get in and out quicker. On a Friday afternoon, we waited less than five minutes to go through the line.

“Some delays,” according to one member, Ellen, “are because people working the cash registers are members and don’t do this all the time.” In fact, if you work once a month as a member, it might take you longer to learn how to use the register. As a result, things are not as speedy as they might be with a paid employee. “But efficiency is not everything,” I thought, looking longingly at the fresh fruit. Others I spoke to disputed this, saying it was just busier, so things take longer.

The point is, everyone participates, which is a great idea in and of itself. But is this as utopian as you’d think? For one thing, there seemed to be too many rules for my taste. Mind you, the majority of the signs say “Do Not…” or “Never…” which seems daunting at first. Sarah says, “You get used to it pretty quickly.”

Each adult member must work close to a three-hour shift every four weeks. For families or partnerships with two adults that calculates to six hours a month. One member says, “But some families with two adults do only three hours [of work].” This is breaking the rules.

One member said, “Because it’s a membership, some people feel they can get special treatment using the paging system whenever they come in to shop.” This is disruptive, because only members actually working the floor that day are supposed to be using the paging system.

Still, others demand things as shoppers that they would otherwise be annoyed at when working their own shifts. “If something is not on the shelves,” says one member, “some people will go downstairs [to the cheese packaging area] and demand Brie right away for a party they’re attending.” This is against the rules, but people do it all the time.

But are some minor hassles worth it? Many think so. Everyone I spoke to had at least two or three gripes, and yet, they remain members. Could it be the fresh food? Reasonable prices? One member is always amazed at how much she saves for a family of four and continues to go there, despite the fact that she has to put in close to six hours a month (her partner has a hectic job, so she takes on his hours, too).

And the coop has made it easy for people to change work slots. You can go online and trade time slots with someone else. Or if you’re feeling tired of your particular job (cashier, office worker in membership office, clerk, traffic flow or floor manager, stocker, cheese wrapper, etc.), you can change jobs at any time.

What about freelancers or people who can only work at certain times of the year? According to this coop’s Website, they have what’s called a Future Time Off Program (FTOP), which enables people to work when it is the most convenient for them. Because there are so many members (in the thousands), this is possible. And it works. For example, if a teacher were to work all thirteen slots in the summer, she or he would be done with their work for their entire membership year.

After the groceries were rung up and put into boxes, we got a receipt. We then took the receipt and stood in an additional line to pay. Then, on the way out, we had to wait in yet another line for another person to look over our boxes. Could this process be more streamlined? Probably, but it might not make a lick of difference, given the lack of actual floor space. The downside to this coop was, of course, lack of space.

Leaving the coop, we ventured toward the parking garage (where coop members get a discount). The “outside workers,” as they’re called, were standing ready. They’re in charge of making sure the grocery carts are returned. Some of them do more than this, but not everyone. I naively thought, “Wow, are we even going to get help schlepping this stuff?”  

I was wrong. The “outside worker” merely walked beside us as we held on to the overflowing cart of boxes which looked about to fall at any second. He casually blathered on about something, looking ahead, completely ignoring the fact that we were about to lose the eggs! (So much for gentlemanly behavior.)

According to my friend, “Some of the workers are great about helping you push the cart and are quite courteous, but others (“Like this turkey?” I wondered) are friendly, but are only concerned with getting the cart back.”

Despite the clueless “outside worker” and multiple lines, I still liked the coop. I thought wistfully back at the delicious displays of cheese and organic locally grown everything. Maybe I would actually eat better and cook more if I joined a coop? Three hours of coop work a month is nothing. Plus, I’d save a lot of money. My friend reminded me of one of their policies. You can become a member even if you don’t live in this area. Indeed, many members come in from Long Island or as far away as Westchester. Hmmm, this was getting interesting.

But does it really make sense for me to drive an hour and a half to get groceries? What about the cost of gas? I could take a commuter train and two subway trains, which would only amount to about $16, but would it be possible to carry a week’s worth of groceries home on the subway and train? I’m still pondering this one—and researching food coops in my area.