By an odd coincidence, we happened to share dinner the other night with two members of the Park Slope Food Coop, an organic food cooperative in Brooklyn, New York's Park Slope neighborhood. Both spoke enthusiastically of the coop's unique model, which gives members an unusual level of both responsibility and control. Traditionally, food cooperatives are member-owned and -controlled; their mission is to provide low-cost, healthy food to members of the coop (and sometimes the public.) Coops are also typically committed to educating consumers, providing high-quality organic and natural products, and supporting local family farms.
The Park Slope Coop takes these principles one step further. They restrict purchases exclusively to members, and require all members to share in the work of running the coop. Everyone who joins the coop must work two hours and 45 minutes every four weeks, for a total of about 36 hours a year. If a member misses a shift, he or she must work a double-shift the next time, providing a strong incentive not to skip out on the work requirement. The result is that members do about 75 percent of the work of running the coop, eliminating most of the usual payroll expense of running a store.
Sounds like a lot of work. So what's the up side? The intangible benefit of Park Slope Coop's work policy is that it creates a real sense of community among coop members--a community that will only function so long as everyone in it contributes equally. This sense of community is made even stronger by the fact that members usually work as part of "squads"--small groups that all work the same shift together The tangible benefit is that, with so much of the labor of running the coop free, prices are lower--according to one recent member comparison survey, an average of 40 percent, allowing members who couldn't afford to shop at an upscale grocery store like Whole Foods to have access to the same high-quality, local produce as much higher-priced conventional groceries.
The Coop's web site is worth checking out even if you don't live in Brooklyn or visit frequently (some of the coop's members actually live out of town). Not only will you wish you could join (organic carrots for 86 cents a pound!), you'll be impressed by the sheer wealth of information coop members have compiled. In addition to a complete, up-to-date list of produce on the shelves (including origin, whether it's organic, fair-trade status, and whether it's local), the site includes a comprehensive explanation of the coop's local-food guidelines, a list of events (including cooking classes), and some really tempting and charmingly slapdash recipes, including the one for Texas Brisket I've included below (they have vegetarian and vegan recipes, too).
One piece of Beef Brisket, 3-5 lbs.
1/4 cup paprika
2 tbsp Kosher salt
2 tbsp sugar
2 tbsp chile powder
2 tbsp black pepper
1 tbsp granulated onion
1 tbsp granulated garlic
1 tsp cayenne
12 oz. cheap beer
1/2 cup cider vinegar
1/4 cup some sort of vegetable oil
small onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 tbsp of your dry-rub
1 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
Massage the dry-rub into the brisket, all over. Wrap in foil and let rest in the fridge overnight (or for a couple of hours, at least). Unwrap it and let it come to room temperature.
Get a good low smoky fire going and grill the brisket, covered, for several hours, brushing every 15 minutes or so with the mop sauce.
Alternatively, roast the brisket in a conventional oven at 200-250 degrees for several hours, then place over a good low smoky fire for an hour or so to get that smoke into the meat.
Slice against the grain and serve with a good BBQ sauce on the side, or just stir a little tomato sauce into the drippings and use that.
I've been a PSFC member for 15+ years, and it may not be paradise in grocery store form but it's a heck of a lot better than NYC's historically horrible supermarket choices (or the recent Whole Foods-type arrivals). Wandering the Northwest recently, we went into several coops as big as PSFC, and considerably shinier, but none anywhere near as cheap or with as good a selection--PSFC crams a huge number of different products into its NYC-sized double storefront.
One of the things about the work requirement is that it keeps the membership limited to people who are actually interested in co-ops (or have another reason to be willing to work, but I think that's most common). As dense as Brooklyn is, there's no shortage of candidates--12,000 or so now, I think. It probably means that in most of Wal-mart America PSFC isn't a replicable model, which explains why even Ashland and Port Townsend and Portland have those non-work-requiring coops. But I'm pretty happy that PSFC is one of NYC's unique benefits.
Ah, the Park Slope Food Coop! I was a member in the 1980s, and a chronic misser of shifts (musician, late hours, forgot to wake up on Saturday etc.), which meant that I got to do a lot of extra shifts.
But you know, I almost enjoyed the "punishment" of having to stock the rough-hewn vegetable shelves or load stuff into the cold room. Yes, it was work, but it was also fun. One discussed the perils of nuclear weapons or hermeneutics (equally perilous in some contexts) while slinging around boxes of soy milk.
I went by there a few years back, on a visit to NYC, wanted to walk in and remind myself, but I and my companion were met by a hostile, practically snarling door person who turned us away like a bouncer at a hot and exclusive night club. "Members only."
Elsewhere in the world, I've joined coops only to watch them slowly degenerate into enterprises that are impossible to distinguish from Wal-Mart. Work requirements become work opportunities become just dues become ... well, the usual, as these enterprises compete in a low-margin, crowded industry. Here in Sweden we shop at "Coop", which is a mega-chain with its own mega-stores, and "Membership" now means earning bonus points that can be used to consume more stuff.
No difference from the "commercial" chains, but they still have the best assortment of organics.
I actually just joined the coop today and am really looking forward to working a shift once every four weeks. It's a great way to get people involved in the community and raise their awareness about how things in the food retail industry actually work.
It'd be nice if neighborhoods or cities required some sort of work requirement once every four weeks as well.