Image by Hungry Sofia
Having moved to Booklyn NY from Spain for a couple of months, I was eager to get to know the Park Slope Food Coop (PSFC), one of the oldest and largest in America. A lot of people told me stories about it, some enjoy being a member, others are a bit cynical about it, and there are also those who admit 'it's not for me'. Not having these kinds of food coops in Europe as far as I know, I wanted to check out what it's all about, what kinds of people choose to join and how the system works. And let me tell you, what I experienced came very close to the perfect supermarket.The Park Slope Food Coop, an introduction
For those of you who don't know the Park Slope Food Coop, here are some facts from their web site:
The Park Slope Food Coop, located in the heart of the Park Slope section of Brooklyn, New York, was founded in 1973 by a small group of committed neighbors who wanted to make healthy, affordable food available to everyone who wanted it. PSFC has more than 15,000 members, most of whom work once every four weeks in exchange for a 20 - 40% savings on groceries. Only members may shop at the PSFC, and membership is open to all.
First, an orientation course
As you might have guessed, there are a lot of rules, which most people follow proudly and other busy New Yorkers try to skip without much luck. For such a big cooperative, it is of course necessary to have rules, so the first thing you need to do before joining the Coop is to take part in a two-hour orientation course, after which, if you choose to, you can become a member. The day of the course we were greeted with organic coffee and healthy snacks as well as a huge 100% post consumer recycled bag to shop. A nice woman explained us all we needed to know and took us for a tour around the depth of the Food Coop. This is quite an interesting visit, as only members are allowed into the supermarket, and here you can straight away see, and smell, that it's more than just a supermarket.
Reasons for joining
Interesting were also the different reasons why people wanted to join. The main motivators for our group that morning were eating healthy, and access to good quality food that's also cheap. One girl explained that she has food intolerances and finds it easier to take care of them at the Food Coop. Others were looking for a greater sense of community. Yet another guy admitted he was lured in by the smell of spices, vegetable and fruit. It reminded him of his childhood stores, since most of our supermarkets nowadays don't smell at all. Quite a few parents admitted they wanted to cook healthier food for their children, while one mum was inspired by her daughter's food in the fridge. The daughter is already a member of the Food Coop, so mum decided to join too. Lastly, one girl admitted that her flatmate made her join, since all members in a household have to join (another rule).
Why this is the perfect supermarket
Fresher than fresh
After my first shop at the Food Coop, I cooked a very basic chicken and vegetable casserole with a generous portion of fresh herbs, which turned out so well that my partner asked if I tried out a new recipe. The only things new however were the ingredients, much fresher, local and better tasting than those from the normal supermarket. With 15,000 people shopping at the PSFC, everything is definitely fresh.
When you enter, the first section is all fresh vegetable and fruit, mostly local and organic, but also some conventionally grown produce. This, I found out later, is to offer a cheap option for everything. A large selection of kosher food, amazing pickles, fair-trade products and even some organic frozen and ready food is on offer. I was impressed with the cleaning product section as well a large offer on supplements and vitamins. One of my favourite shelf was the cheese section; both artisan, local and imported cheeses at great prices. The corridor where you can buy grains, cereals, coffee and spices in bulk is also quite impressive.
Image from foodcoop.com
A sense of community
The place is jam packed with anything from fresh produce to some frozen food, an amazing cheese section, cleaning products, tinned food, some pre-prepared food, recycled tooth brushes and much more. It offers anything a local American supermarket has, although it feels more like your local corner store. It actually smells nice, earthly and has no annoying neon lighting, freezing corridors and awful music. Everybody is chatting with everyone, a lot of people know each other and even if they don't they still comment on the stuff in your shopping cart. It is after all not only the place you shop, but also the place where you work 2,75 hours every 4 weeks. So the nice thing is that you know exactly what's in store, or somebody does and might even have a recipe suggestion. Like the nice woman in the orientation course told us: "At the PSFC you meet other people although it is not a dating scene".
Your decision counts
Being part of the Food Coop, kind of makes the place your own supermarket since you get to decide what it sells. If there is a product that's not stocked, but you think it should be for sale at the Coop, you simply suggest the product by putting a barcode from its packaging and a reason why it should be on the shelves into a suggestion box. If it fits in with the 80% organic products, the locally sourced and the low-priced products, everybody will be able to buy it.
Organic and cutting the food bill
That the food coop is for everyone reflects in the fact that there is always a cheap option. 80% of the food is organic, but when it comes to vegetables for example, there is also always a regular cheap option if the price difference between organic and non-organic is high. That way, families that are less well of are also catered for. Another way to keep the prices down is to sell stuff like grains and spices in bulk. This is not only cheaper but also saves a hell of a lot of packaging, as the true food cooperativists bring in their own bags or containers.
Knowing where your food comes from
One thing I really appreciated was the labels telling the origin of each vegetable or fruit, and even cheese and meat. A lot of them form part of the 500 Mile Diet, others were locally produced but then you could also buy more exotic food or food out of season from anywhere in the world. Never had it been so easy to eat local.
They take car of your kids, dogs, bike,...
If you find yourself near the Food Coop, you can see some people with bright yellow vests walking around, often pushing an empty cart. They are walkers, doing their monthly shift, which is to accompany the people who do a big shop to their home, to then bring back the empty shopping trolley. This is a brilliant system, which let's you shop a lot, without having to use a car and is completely hassle free. If you come by bike, there will be a bike valet watching the parking to make sure your bike is still there when you come out; a task they created after a few bikes were stolen. And if you have nowhere to leave your kids, you can leave them at the Coop's own nursery until you're done with the shopping. At the moment, they are thinking of creating the same for the dogs...
... and much more.
The food coop is open 363 days a year, since there is always someone who has a different holiday than you. And if you want to get more involved, there are plenty of members who organise events, workshops and other fun stuff on the side, from lectures about dyslexia, cooking classes, music or blogging workshops.
Just don't get suspended
All is well in the Food Coop until you get suspended. The reason would be that you didn't do your 2,75 hour work shift every 4 weeks. Until you re-take that shift, you cannot shop at the Coop.
Give and Take at the Food Coop
When we did the orientation course before joining, we were shown around the place. Apart from the shopping area, there are different workstations. Downstairs for example is one area where people divide up huge cheeses into smaller pieces or big bags of herbs and spices into smaller portions. That way the food is still sold at the same price the big bag went for, and things like delicious cheeses stay much more affordable. The people weighing and packaging this food are just members of the PSFC, doing their monthly shift. Other tasks could be stuffing the shelves, looking after the kids in the nursery, doing the till, being bike valet or walker to take the trolleys back after people arrived home.
My task, at 8am sharp, was to unload crisp boxes from a van, sort them out by brands and then put them on the shelves in the shopping area. Jon and Ken, an artist and a writer, were on crisp mission with me that morning. We had quite a nice chat in between listening to the orders and the very specific instructions. Everything was done in a strict way and everything had a specific name. We used U-boats for example to transport the crisps; as you can guess the carts where U-shaped and we were the crisp squad. This makes it actually very easy to get on with your job, even if you are new to that task. Later on we were sent to the cold room, which is where the fresh vegetables and fruit are stored. We were handed an Eskimo-like coat, which at first made us feel slightly ridiculous, but once in the cold room, was very much appreciated.
As I was only staying in Park Slope for a couple of months, I only did one shift but I must say that it was much more pleasant than I expected it to be, after hearing some horror stories similar to Diane Mehtas' "Won't Work for Food" article who labelled the PSFC "something between an earthy-crunchy health food haven and a Soviet-style re-education camp.". She still gets plenty of comments of people disagreeing, but having read the article, I could recognise how it can get " a little bit nuts" if you're not in the right mood. I guess it is all about giving and taking and about wanting to be part of the community. Some people, like the NYTimes writer Alana Joblin Ain and most of her friends according to her article "Flunking Out at the Food Co-op" just don't manage to get the time together to work 2,75 hours every 4 weeks in a supermarket, and get shamefully suspended. Then again plenty of people, some 15,000 (and maybe this is the problem nowadays; too many members in a very small space!) seem to dutifully report to work and shop happily every after. ::Park Slope Food Coop ::Wikipedia PSFC