[This is part of an ongoing series looking at other co-ops.]
Folks at the Bushwick Food Co-op know what they are up against. In New York City,
co-ops open and close with regularity, and while wanting to be part of a sustainable food movement they realize they can, unfortunately, also be part of a gentrification movement as well.
Jessica Sirbu Balnaves is the general manager of the Bushwick Food Co-op, a member-owned cooperative with 300 members. Their small store has been around since 2012, having started out as a buying club in 2009. She talked with me about the ways in which the Bushwick Co-op tries to do things differently.
Doing Things Differently
“We do a couple of things differently [from Park Slope Co-op]. We have members and non-members shopping at the store. Members pay 24% above wholesale and non-members 74%,” explained Jessica.
They really encourage membership because that is how they keep their store running. With only five staff people, Jessica says that the staff’s role is to support member work. “We run the store, members run the Co-op”.
Each staff member makes sure the store opens and closes and makes people feel welcome, ensuring a good experience whether it’s as a volunteer or as a shopper. Each staff person also oversees a committee which, according to Jessica, is how the work gets done and the overhead stays low. “We don’t have to pay for marketing or IT, sourcing or ordering. It’s all done through membership committees.”
Jessica, for example, oversees the sourcing committee. “We had to stop carrying Annie’s products which was hard, because we loved them, but when General Mills took them over, they no longer met the strict sourcing standards the committee has set.” With pride, Jessica ticked off those standards: completely organic, GMO free, (which means even animal feed cannot contain GMO’s.) They also refuse to do business with any companies that have any labor issues. All meat is pasture-raised and their chocolate is Fair Trade.
Following Her Conscience
The Co-op changed Jessica’s life. At the time she joined, she had been working as an ad executive for Disney media, working on multi-million dollar campaigns to sell food using Disney images. “I was very successful but very miserable and one day I couldn’t take it anymore.” She joined the Bushwick Co-op because she started thinking about “what we were eating and where we are getting our food from.” As she began volunteering for a co-op that was GMO free, she could no longer stomach that she was pushing GMO food onto others through her marketing job. So she quit. Since then, she has worked on an urban farm, become manager of the Co-op, and is now starting a cut flower business out of her home. She recognizes the privilege that allows her to make these choices. She had a high paying job and her husband still does. His income allows her to take risks and follow her heart and conscience.
But part of her commitment and that of the Bushwick Co-op’s, is to make good food available to everyone. “Bushwick [Brooklyn] is a food desert. We don’t want any sort of barriers to people having access to this food,” she explained. That’s why they offer non-member access. It’s also why they have discounted membership for anyone receiving public assistance or to anyone who belongs to a local neighborhood or civic organization. They partner with groups in the community such as Make the Road, NY, which builds power in Latino and working class communities by organizing, education, and survival services. Bushwick Co-op looks for opportunities to partner with them, going to their community garden, donating food, asking folks what they need from the Co-op. They also work with BK Rot, a community-supported composting operation that generates year-round environmental jobs for local youth in Bushwick. The Co-op is a compost drop-off site. People who don’t even shop there drop off their compost.
To get the discount, the Co-op requires that members work four hours a month, and Jessica describes that they are very creative with the hours. For example, someone who is elderly or has a disability can have someone else do the hours for them. If there is a family with an older child, they can come do hours for their parents and then parents can do the shopping. People are also able to earn hours outside of the Co-op, working in the community garden, tabling at events etc. “We want our members out in the community – you have to talk about the Co-op – a one-on- one chat will form a relationship, and that’s how we get people to be more comfortable.”
Setting The Table Together
Word must be getting out. The Bushwick Co-op is bursting at the seams! They no longer have the space to keep up with the demand. Honoring their commitment to food justice and truly being a resource for the community, they are looking to open a second store. “Where we are now, it’s a pretty gentrified area,” admits Jessica. “We need to go deeper into the community.” So they are looking at space on the other end of Bushwick. This doesn’t mean abandoning their current post. “We want to serve everyone, we have a lot of loyal customers who shop here.” This may be an opportunity to build with community partners as they identify the site and create the new store.
Jessica explains it with a metaphor someone recently shared with her. “We can’t set the table and then invite other people to come and have a good time. What we’re trying to do is set the table together.”