[This is part of an ongoing series looking at other co-ops.]
Kathy Peters is a self-identified hippie from the 1960s who joined the Abundance Food Co-op in Rochester, NY, looking for community and a shared sense of values. Kathy has stayed with Abundance Food Co-op through a roller coaster of a ride, though things are not looking up for her Co-op. Recently, she shared her thoughts on sacrifice, food sourcing and the ebb and flow of the co-op movement.
Kathy joined the Abundance Food Co-op in the early 1970s after moving to Rochester from Canton, NY, a small upstate town. While she had never heard of a co-op before, community was a very important value she carried with her after growing up in Canton. “So when I got to Rochester and there was this thing, I didn’t know what it was, and I wanted to be part of it. I wanted to know what I was eating, I wanted to buy better food…boy was I raised on the standard [American diet].”
The Abundance Food Co-op began as a small store in a larger collective building space, known as the Genesee Economic Alliance, which housed other projects such as a print shop and a community darkroom for photography.
Kathy’s first role at the Co-op was produce assistant, and then she became a bulk buyer. At one point, Kathy left town but then came back and worked at the Co-op for seven years before financial hardships caused an upheaval.
The Food Store
“The Co-op, known then as ‘the Food Store,’ was sort of the cash cow for the rest of the businesses” in the Genesee Economic Alliance, explains Kathy over the phone. “A group started negotiating to buy the [Co-op] and I guess it wasn’t going real well and the management came on to run the business but everybody walked. It took about a year for this to die.”
In its place, members got together and created a buying club. “People were interested in still buying the groceries, still being able to get this good product, but it was 100 percent volunteer; nobody was paid and we did that for a year and a half until a new location could be found.” Kathy was one of the staff members who walked. “It was hard, I lived on my savings.”
Fast forward 40 years and Kathy is currently the Merchandising Manager for Abundance. “For all the times that the business has struggled, I hung around,” Kathy reflected with more than a small amount of pride in her voice. This statement struck me.
I wondered aloud if she thought people would or could make the same kind of sacrifice today, to live off savings, and even off credit card debt like she did in order to follow through on her commitment to the Co-op. She admits that she doesn’t know.
In fact, Abundance Food Co-op is having a difficult time bringing in the younger generation.
“RIT [or Rochester Institute of Technology] is starting to teach the cooperative model as a financial institution,” Kathy said. “We draw some young, idealistic people…but they don’t hang around long enough to see what the true benefits of the Co-op can be; it goes far beyond buying better food. It’s the sense of community; it’s drawing together for a shared vision.”
The Abundance Food Co-op is planning some significant upgrades. It’s moving to a bigger building that will be more visible and on a bus route. The new building will stand out more than their current location. This new space will also have room for educational meetings and cooking classes, which Kathy hopes will appeal to more people and broaden their customer base.
According to Kathy, their General Manager has expressed concerns over the financial strains being placed on the store. “We’re smaller than you guys, [we’re a] small- to almost medium-size store. We’re stretched so thin that nobody feels that they can do their job adequately, but we’re hanging in there.”
Times are changing. Kathy explains that it’s harder today to be a co-op with all the competition. In addition, people want more from the store. “Sometimes, what people say and what people do don’t jive,” she observed. For instance, though Abundance has several criteria for the products they carry, Kathy feels that ultimately the members are voting with their dollars for items that don’t meet these criteria well. Abundance, like many co-ops, feels pulled between staying true to their mission and staying viable.
It seems to Kathy that the most valuable product co-ops offer is knowing you are connected to and responsible for your community – whether it’s through volunteer worker programs, cooking classes, or knowing that the food you are buying is good not only for your family but also for the family that grew and harvested the food. The questions that arise for her now are: Do people still hold those values? Will they support them with their dollars? Where does one draw the line at compromising values?
Shanna has been a member of Honest Weight Co-op since 2001. She is graduating this May with her Masters in Social Welfare from SUNY Albany. She is committed to healing and empowering individuals and communities and splits her time at Upstate Physicians and the non-profit, communityLAB. She also does some life coaching.