By Dan Garwood, North American Coordinator, NFTY in Israel
Shortly after moving to my current apartment in Brooklyn, my wife and I joined the legendary Park Slope Food Co-Op. The Co-Op is a member-owned grocery store, where every member contributes labor in exchange for access to shop. (Exceptions are made for new parents, individuals with disabilities, and longtime members who have earned retirement.) By virtue of the members performing the vast majority of the Co-Op’s labor needs, the markup on items sold is kept to a minimum – just enough to keep the non-profit sustainable, pay its professional staff, and invest in its future.
When I joined, I thought I was just getting a good deal on groceries in exchange for a few hours of my time every four weeks. Instead, I discovered so much about the massive ecosystem that moves food from farms all over the world onto our plates, and what happens when a community takes collective ownership of the choices that are made in bringing food to local populations.
Perhaps the most obvious impact is the cost savings. For people across a range of economic means, the ability to trade a relatively small amount of work for potentially hundreds or thousands of dollars in annual savings provides greater food security. The low cost and high quality of the Co-Op’s fresh produce entices members to make healthier purchasing choices for themselves and their families.
For my first work-slot, I joined the “Stocking and Receiving” squad, and have stuck with it ever since. This is the group of members who accept deliveries, store them away, and bring them out to restock the shelves. With each item I’ve handled, I’ve learned something new about where my food comes from. One delivery truck might be full of canned tomatoes imported from Italy, dried seaweed from Japan, and vanilla beans from Madagascar. The next will be packed with fresh peppers, squash, mushrooms, and apples from farms just a hundred miles away.
When there was a lime shortage in Mexico a few years ago, we felt it as the price steadily rose to compensate for reduced supply. On the other hand, the mid-summer bounty of peak-season tomatoes causes an annual celebration in my home. Our cooking habits follow what’s in season, a daily reminder that food starts as a living thing, part of an ecosystem, that impacts and is impacted by its environment.
As a self-governing organization, the Co-Op enacts the values of the diverse community that makes up the membership. That includes strong stances on food ethics, environmental impact, and even local or national politics that affect our members and the farmers and producers who sell to us. All the Co-Op’s policies and practices are approved by a vote of the members, though with approximately 18,000 members, it’s inevitable that not all members agree on all the policies. But many are not even remotely controversial: for example, any tuna the Co-Op sells complies with strict ethical standards of sustainability and environmental impact.
For me, membership in the Co-Op has become so much more than just access to really good groceries. My experience has illuminated how a community can grow and flourish around taking personal responsibility for ensuring both neighbors and strangers have access to affordable, ethically sourced, quality food.