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Fixing Fresh Food: Greater Philly's Co-Ops Find Their Way

For some, the concept of food co-ops may conjure up images of leafy greens, and granola, with members sharing the work. Although this model still works in some areas, the co-op of today is just as likely to be a modern storefront offering a full range of groceries, with an emphasis on the healthful, locally grown, organic, economically conscious, and/or fair trade.

It's clear that the co-op model is still an attractive one, as evidenced by seven new start-ups in Eastern Pennsylvania, from Chester to Doylestown and an eighth in Scranton, in addition to the six established ones in the Philadelphia Metro area. From Virginia to New York, 31 co-ops have organized into the Mid-Atlantic Food Co-op Alliance.

"People are becoming savvier about food," says Glenn Bergman, general manager of the Weavers Way Co-ops. "They like to know where their food is coming from and where their money is going. By shopping at a co-op, they know they are keeping their money local and reinvesting in their own community."

The current burst in co-op development is only a small part of a larger dynamic -- the same dynamic that brought First Lady Michelle Obama to Philadelphia as part of her "Let's Move" program, stating, "we want to replicate your success here in Pennsylvania all across America."

After having had the second-lowest number of supermarkets per capita of major cities in the United States a decade ago, Philadelphia has become a model, both regionally and nationally, for the success of its Fresh Food Financing Initiative (FFFI), managed by The Reinvestment Fund (TRF), with significant involvement of The Food Trust, an NGO that has spurred major food advancements in the city. Encompassing projects from community gardens, food co-ops, and "corner stores" to full-service supermarkets in previously underserved neighborhoods, the FFFI has provided funding for 92 fresh-food retail projects in 34 Pennsylvania counties, "creating or preserving more than 5,000 jobs and improving access to healthy food for more than half a million people."

A third of these projects are in the five counties of the Philadelphia metro area, according to Patricia Smith, a TRF senior policy advisor, with the scale of TRF involvement amounting to some $73 million in loans and $12 million in grants. She notes that the states of New York and California are undertaking similar programs based on the Pennsylvania model.

Other efforts are more grassroots. In June, the steering committee of the new South Philly Food Co-Op, organized by neighborhood residents, began accepting applications and equity investments for new member-owners.

Lessons Learned By Weavers Way

To longtime members, the core branch of Weavers Way in West Mt. Airy is a beloved place for both food shopping and meeting neighbors. Many are still devoted to putting in their hours (six hours/year for every adult household member, entitling them to a five percent discount on purchases). But the new branch in the moneyed Chestnut Hill neighborhood, where many non-members shop at sticker price, is a touchstone for abiding resentment among the residents of Germantown and East Mt. Airy, who had hoped a second branch would be located more convenient to them.

Glenn Bergman, who was brought in to rescue the co-op from a financial crisis caused by irregularities that reached a peak nine years ago, justifies this decision on the basis of the responsibility to ensure the organization's viability. "I'm responsible to the members."

This sensibility is also the reason Weavers Way decided to pull out of its direct involvement in its in its West Oak Lane branch, effective Sept. 1. Despite innovating features unique to this branch in order to serve the neighborhood demographic, sales have been insufficient to reach the break-even level, and Weavers Way members cannot continue to absorb the persistent shortfall.

Three years ago, at the behest of the Ogontz Avenue Revitalization Corp., dedicated to renewal of this long-neglected neighborhood, and with financial support from TRF and other organizations, the brief and goal had made great sense: "Rebrand a typical small-footprint storefront building into a fresh food alternative and create a community anchor." The Weavers Way experts, who consult on projects up and down the East Coast, were naturals to fulfill this; and to all appearances, they had.

But one key element was overlooked: orienting and involving the very community it was meant to serve. Yes, as of July, they now offer Philly's Food Bucks, giving $2 extra value for every $5 a customer spends using SNAP/food stamps, but imagine those on highly limited budgets comparing the inevitably higher prices of a small shop to those of a supermarket located a short bus ride away. Quantity tends to win out over quality.

It has been decided, therefore, that the OARC will take over operation of the store, while Weavers Way, according to Bergman, "will continue to be involved in community events and outreach in West Oak Lane and to work through Weavers Way Community Programs at the Stenton Manor Shelter and Awbury Arboretum with farm and food education."

Those area residents who value the store, meanwhile, are seeking a voice in the decision-making process and a model that works for them.

Not Only Food Needs to Grow Organically
A number believe they have found the formula in Chester's Co-op, where a dynamo named Tina Johnson has done it the old-fashioned way. Returning to her impoverished hometown in 2005 after working for 10 years in India and Mexico, Johnson was staggered by how underserved the community was. Its last supermarket had closed in 1994, leaving the elderly and poor without convenient access to basic groceries, much less fresh produce and meats.

Motivated by comments at an event about nutrition issues, the former community organizer had formed a committee to look into establishing a food co-op by March 2006. The members then went out to the community and started presenting models for bringing fresh food to the town of 37,000.

Within a year, 52 member households were part of the circle, and they started selling food to each other from trucks.

"You cannot put a co-op in a community," Johnson states. "It has to come from the community."

Indeed, community involvement grew, even as the improvised sales system moved from space to space, selling from trucks and tents. Meanwhile, Johnson quit her own business to devote herself to the cause.

This effort reached fruition in March when the co-op, aided by funding from TRF, ended its nomadic existence and moved into a 3,000-sq ft store at 512 Avenue of the States. Already, two businesses have set up shop nearby.

The Chester co-op currently has 230 member households, with 350 -- the break-even point--targeted in the coming months. Johnson believes 1,400 would be ideal, but, in a community with high unemployment and underemployment, the $50 membership fee and $200 investment equity require a lot of consideration and planning. Those who cannot pay a lump sum have the options of paying in $20/month over ten months or $10/month over 20 months.

There is only one paid employee: Johnson, who ostensibly works only 20 hours a week but in fact can be found there at almost any time. Day-to-day staffing comes from the members themselves, who commit to 2-3/4 hours every four weeks, and three trainees who work 20 hours/week. Through a not-for-profit arm of the co-op, Chester's Community Charitable Corp., the unemployed and seniors (from Goodwill Industries) are able to gain retail experience in the hope of finding employment.

Meetings are held monthly, with about 30 percent of the members attending to discuss everything from pricing (precisely 21 percent markup on every product) and stocking (hormone-free milk instead of natural by nature, to control price, and Del Monte bananas because organic ones ripen too quickly) to education and outreach. Former Chester residents now living in Florida even phone in to participate in the meetings; also have food orders shipped to them and put in their work hours when visiting the town.

"A co-op is only as strong as its members," Johnson concludes, "and they have to have vision."

RUTH HEIGES is a freelance writer from Elkins Park. Send feedback here.


Weaver's Way

Chester's Co-op

Inside Chester's Co-op

Fresh produce for sale in Chester

Tina Johnson, Chester Co-op's manager

Weaver's Way

Inside Weaver's Way

Fresh asparagus for sale at Weaver's

All photographs by JEFF FUSCO

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