Food Coops, In Park Slope & Elsewhere

When Mike mentioned that his yogurt costs these days are considerable, at least one concerned commenter suggested that he take his commerce to that venerable Brooklyn institution, the Park Slope Food Coop.

Screenshot 2015-05-15 09.35.10I snort-laughed when I saw this exchange, because, unlike Mike but like thousands of other city residents, I have been a member of the Co-op, and I think being a member would drive him organic free-trade bananas. I have exclaimed over well-priced cheese, groaned over endless meetings, and swabbed bathrooms as part of my monthly three-hour work shift. I have hung my head while receiving a scolding for chattering in the aisles, and I have rejoiced as friends met new romantic partners while serving together as cashiers.

I have saved money and cooked delicious meals; and I have perhaps lost as much as a year of my life to picayune, pointless squabbles over issues such as whether the store should sell SodaStreams and hummus. I have joined and quit and joined again and quit again. Right now I’m in Quit mode, but the siren song … every once in a while, I hear it. It calls to me.

The SodaStream-and-hummus boycott idea came up again this Spring: once again members were asked to vote to eliminate products from Israel, and once again members returned an answer of No, thanks, we’re okay. As someone put it succinctly in a letter to the editor of the New York Daily News, “most members sign up for food, not political food fights.” That is how I felt, certainly: I was in it for wholesome groceries at reasonable prices with a dash of camaraderie, not to feel like I was eternally imprisoned in my Freshman year of college.

And yet political food fights are an integral part of shopping and eating these days. We bring our self-righteousness to the market with us along with our credit cards. Perhaps to pretend otherwise is naive.

The Co-op, it should be said, does not take credit cards — for ideological reasons. Nowadays you can use debit or EBT cards; for ages, though, you could pay only with cash. The store also does not hold with plastic bags. Shoppers bring their own bags or help themselves to empty cardboard boxes. Recycled, of course.

Here is a reminiscence by Alex Castle, who has been a member for over a decade, though he is now finally considering moving on:

For those of you who’ve never been to the Park Slope Food Coop, picture the organic section of your local supermarket. You know, the 10×20 foot corner where they hide all the Amy’s Organic frozen pizzas, the Annie’s Organic mac and cheese, and everything with Paul Newman’s face on it. Take that 10×20 square, make it 4% bigger with double the inventory, triple the shoppers, and ten thousand million times the righteous hippie indignation, and you’ve got the Park Slope Food Coop. …

When you take a bunch of dead-serious, politically correct treehuggers and put them in a severely overcrowded space, trying to navigate half-sized shopping aisles with full-size shopping carts, it really doesn’t matter how politically like-minded you are — all they know is you are between them and the last thing of tea-tree oil, and therefore no better than an AIPAC speaker. Add to that the fact that once you’ve managed to fill your cart, you have to wait in a line that more often than not stretches from the front of the place to the back, then winds to the front again and then back to the back, with the wait to check out sometimes lasting 45 minutes to an hour, and you get a customer base that arrives loaded for bear, ready to fight whether it’s really warranted or not. Aside from the Brooklyn Navy Yard, I can’t think of another place where so many people are so quick to jump down each other’s throats.

He’s not wrong, but there is another side to the matter, one detailed recently in, of all places, Forbes.com:

I live in Park Slope, Brooklyn and I recently became a member of the infamous Park Slope Food Coop. It is one of the largest in the country with 18,000 members and $46,000,000 in annual revenue. It has much lower prices than other supermarkets in the neighborhood and many healthy food options. In return for the lower prices each member must work once per month for just under 3 hours.

Working at the Coop is very interesting and enjoyable in many ways as I get to see behind the scenes of a supermarket. It is something that I have taken for granted and now I am the one who puts the food on the shelves.  As an entrepreneur, I have been able to bring back many concepts or ideas that I observed at the Coop to my own business.

Have you ever been a member of a co-op, or even the Co-op? What’s your take: worth it or “I’d rather do the breaststroke across the Ohio River in February than have to justify my food preferences to nosy neighbors, and besides, they don’t stock Cap’n Crunch”?

This story is part of our food month series.

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