Inside Park Slope Food Co-op

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Have you ever wondered how other longtime food co-ops sustain themselves? Coopdirectory.org lists 27 food co-ops in New York State, including Honest Weight. What are the best practices used by our counterparts that lead to their success, longevity, and fulfillment of mission? To answer this question, the Co-op Voice has published profiles of a number of other co-ops. To continue our search, we called up some connections through relatives, friends, and colleagues who are members of Park Slope Food Co-op, one of the oldest and largest co-ops in the entire country, dedicated to being a “buying agent to its members, not a selling agent to any industry.”

Park Slope Food Co-op was established in 1973 and now has over 17,000 members. The physical plant occupies a modest 10,000 square feet on two levels in three adjacent and connected buildings on Union Street in Brooklyn. The place has an old-fashioned neighborhood feel that comes from the charm and character of brick and mortar. The entire space is owned by the co-op and carries no mortgage. Established for the benefit of members only and not open to the public, this operation seems to be a well-oiled machine that grosses around $52 million per year!

The membership office is located on the second floor, between the child care center and the meeting room. The desk in front of the co-op office is where I began my tour, escorted by long-time member Carl Arnold, currently one of the two Co-coordinating Editors (roughly equivalent to managing editors) of the co-op’s newsletter, the Linewaiters’ Gazette, and a staunch proponent of the cooperative alternative to commercial supermarkets. I was given a green visitor’s badge, and we were ready to explore.

The ground floor is entirely occupied by a bustling retail space that looks, sounds, and smells like the freshness of the products it offers. The produce department, I was told, turns over (a full re-set of stock) 51 times per year. That translates to freshness. Though some produce comes from California and Latin America, much of it is local (defined as sourced within a 500-mile radius). At first glance, the prices seem very affordable. Progressing through the store, the impression of low prices is further enhanced. For example, a loaf of Ezekiel bread is $4.34.

Carl tells me the official markup in all departments, except vitamins and supplements, is 21%. This remarkable value comes at the cost of a member workslot of 2.75 hours per four-week period! Members can also earn workslot credit twice a year by attending a monthly General Meeting, well attended by an ever-changing array of members. They can also fulfill their workslot hours by serving on one of the many committees that make the co-op function democratically. The Park Slope committees, unlike those at Honest Weight, are not committees of the board. Rather, they are free-standing committees of the membership. Members cover roughly 80% of the required labor for the entire store. Only the General Coordinators (the equivalent of Honest Weight’s department managers) and 70 or so Coordinators (hourly workers) are paid employees.

General Coordinators are responsible for making day-to-day decisions about store operations. Decisions involving more than $10,000, however, must be approved by the membership at a General Meeting.

A tour through the rest of the store reveals many familiar brands and products in the grocery, frozen foods, housewares, bulk, and meat departments. Products have been carefully chosen for their quality and adherence to the co-op mission. The community feeling is apparent everywhere, as members pause their shopping to greet Carl and check in with him on various topics and issues pertaining to the co-op as well as to the greater community. As Carl tells me about the sourcing of many of the products, his personal dedication to their quality and the environment is obvious.

Vitamin and supplement products are the one exception to the 21% markup. Carl says that it has to be done to cover loss. These items are more susceptible to theft. While it seems counter-intuitive that a member would steal from their own co-op, it does happen and, when discovered, is dealt with by the Disciplinary Committee. The co-op also uses security cameras for loss prevention. The decision to do so was not without controversy and was made according to a democratic process.

That democratic process is essential to the functioning of the co-op. After a turbulent and increasingly contentious period in the co-op’s history, a group of dedicated members developed a protocol for meetings that has been working well for over two decades. They developed a script with several sections (introduction for new attendees, announcements at an open mic, agenda, approval of minutes, Board approval vote, ride-share volunteers, etc.) for their monthly General Meetings. These usually take 2.5 hours and govern all co-op policies. This process is invaluable; the meetings are often attended by around 500 members. Likewise, there is a strict protocol and agenda for the Annual Meeting.

Their board of directors, created to fulfill the corporate requirements of New York State Cooperative Corporations Law, holds its meeting in front of everyone at the tail end of each General Meeting. At Park Slope, the board approves — “accepts the advice” — of every General Meeting decision, as expressed by the membership vote. In the unlikely event that the board determines a General Meeting decision presents a fiscal threat to the co-op, the board would draw the line, but, as Carl mentioned, “If something is really dumb, the General Meeting is not going to approve it in the first place.”

How do other members feel about the way the co-op functions? I talked to Laura (not her real name), who has been a member of the Park Slope Food Co-op for two years. She depends on it for unbeatable prices on fresh, local produce and great products that she values and uses daily. She likes working her shift on the floor and says this is the best way to get to know the products and the people. Laura likes the sense of community the co-op fosters and benefits from the networking opportunities she finds there.

Laura does see a downside to the co-op experience, as well. Reluctantly, she admits that there are too many rules for her taste and that those rules can be unevenly enforced, to the point of sometimes seeming arbitrary. Also, there can be over-staffing on the floor and sometimes members run out of things to do on their shift. Laura rarely goes to the monthly meetings because it is her nature to avoid controversy. As she admits, she has not yet participated in attempting to improve the problems she sees.

It is the purpose of the meetings to air issues and decide policy by confronting, debating, and resolving differences of opinion. Park Slope Food Co-op even has a Dispute Resolution Committee. Laura has found a level of involvement that works for her and appreciates all the ways the co-op experience enriches her life.

One basic element that connects and informs the membership of the Park Slope Food Co-op is the member newsletter, the Linewaiters’ Gazette. Almost as old as the co-op itself, the Gazette is published bi-weekly. Its pages are filled with the issues and opinions essential to the democratic operation of the co-op. Look for a report on the Linewaiters’ Gazette in the next issue of the Co-op Voice.

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Karla Guererri has been a Co-op Member-Owner for several years. She works in the field of education and lives in Troy.