Photo: Michael Nagle/NYT
“The co-op is worse than socialism. Because at least in a socialist country, if you know the right people, you can get out of it.”
“For a long time, the co-op member who lived furthest away was from—can anyone guess?—Ithaca, NY. Once a month, he would drive all the way to Park Slope, do his work shift, and then load up his car with groceries. There’s a food co-op in Ithaca too, but apparently it was still worth it to come all the way here.”
“It’s something between an earthy-crunchy health food haven and a Soviet-style re-education camp.”
Love it or hate it, the Park Slope Food Coop is undeniably the nation’s most notorious cooperative grocery store, a bastion of democratic ideals in one of New York’s most elite neighborhoods. As the name suggests, a cooperative is a group of people who work together in a jointly owned business. Most food co-ops in the U.S. have several tiers of members, where some members contribute labor to the co-op and pay less, while other members only shop and pay a bit more. The Park Slope Food Coop does not trifle with such distinctions—to shop at the co-op, every adult member of your household must work a 2 ¾ hour shift every four weeks. No exceptions. This is one of the strictest labor requirements in the country for a food co-op.
Which is to say, if you want to become a member, you will have to work very, very hard. No, I don’t mean the work requirement. I am referring to the sign-up process. To join the co-op, you must first register for an orientation session. Registration slots are available online, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, between 3 and 4 pm. For my first few attempts, every time I remembered to check online, all the slots had already been taken. Finally, I set myself a Google Calendar reminder, sat on the orientation page and hit refresh until I landed a slot.
The orientation itself takes about two hours and you cannot leave early. With the polished air of an old insider, Matthew explained the co-op’s structure and regulations. From its inception in 1973, the co-op has grown to over 15,500 members, who do 75% of the labor, with help from 65 paid staff members.
What does it mean to be a Food Coop member? It means you are a shopper, a worker and an owner. It means you have year-round access fresh, organic produce and groceries at incredibly low prices. It means you are committed to working for the common good. It means you have contributed $100 in investment capital (refundable if you leave) and $25 in joining fees (nonrefundable).
“I’m going to make a claim here,” said Matthew, “that the food here is better.” What do you mean by better? “It’s better because it contains fewer chemicals and pesticides, and it’s fresher because of the volume and rate of exchange that we go through.” He explained that retail turn measures the rate at which inventory is replaced in grocery stores. The average grocery store has an annual retail turn of 15, meaning that the inventory is completely replenished 15 times a year. The Park Slope Food Coop’s retail turn is 78 times a year—the store’s inventory completely turns over in less than a week. According to a recent article in Fortune, the co-op’s annual sales per square feet were over $6,500, over 8x the figure for Whole Foods. In fact, the co-op sells one case of produce every minute that they are open, or over 600 cases of produce a week.
Undoubtedly, the produce aisle is the star of the co-op, with the vast majority of products sourced less than 500 miles away (a day’s drive) and about 80% of products grown organically. The price list for produce is posted online daily, so you know exactly what’s available at what price. Some products are available in organic and conventionally grown options, particularly if there’s a large price differential between them. Organic red onions, for instance, cost double their conventionally grown counterparts, and so the co-op tries to provide choices for people on a budget.
How do they set prices anyway? The co-op marks almost all products up with a flat 21% increase, far lower than the industry standard markup of 50-100%. So, you can easily subtract the markup to determine the original wholesale price.
For the naysayers who decry the co-op as a playground for the wealthy, I was pleasantly surprised to see that there is an alternative pricing structure for people of low income who want to join. If you are on food stamps or can otherwise demonstrate financial need, you are only required to pay $10 in investment capital and $5 for the joining fee. You can set up a payment plan to break up the payments, and the co-op accepts EBT as a method of payment. For a community that many outsiders have deemed a closed, shadowy cabal, the co-op is genuinely interested in being accessible to people of all walks of life. So long as you abide by the rules in the 52-page membership manual.
Naturally, where there are rules, there are people who try to find loopholes. A couple months ago, the NYT did an exposé on co-op members who send their nannies to do their work shifts for them. Quel horreur! This nefarious shirking threatens the core values of equality and fairness that the co-op was founded on.
As for myself, I have signed up for the Shopping Committee, Squad A. I’ll be working my first shift at the check-out line this Wednesday at 3:30 pm—feel free to stop by and say hello! Oh wait, you can’t get through the door.