It's Saturday morning, and a cluster of bleary-eyed aduits huddle in the Eastern Market parking lot before dawn, preparing to buy produce for perhaps 100 families. A few miles away and a few hours later, another group in a church basement divides up crates of fresh oranges and pungent rounds of cheese for some 20 families. On Litchfield Street in Detroit, a woman asks her neighbors if anyone can use an extra watermelon for $1 .25. If you haven't already guessed, Saturday 'is co-op day n Detroit and many other cities. It's hardly news that the food dollar is shrinkingastastas the consumer's choices on the grocer's shelves. It's the consumer action movement that's stealing the spotlight. Consuméis, who have organized themselves to buy cheaper, more nutritious foods are taking a larger chunk of food retail sales in Michigan. Out of the $5.1 billion in retail food sales in the state, an estimated 5 per cent is handled through food cooperatives, according to Edward Deeb, Executive Director of the Associated Food Dealers of Michigan. The Michigan Federation of Food Cooperatives estímales that at least two new co-ops per month apply for membership in the federation. Some food cooperatives have lists. Food cooperatives aren 't a new phenomenon. Theirrootsin the United States go back to the last century. The idea is simple. Groups of consumers pool their time and resources to purchase food at the bulk price savings. A co-op might divide a bushei of potatoes and sell them for $.08 per pound, while the same bushei would sell for $.19 per pound at the retail grocer. Monterey jack, $1.80 per pound at the supermarket, is sold for $1.04 per pound at one large cooperative. Generally the co-op asks members to pay a flat membership fee, volunteer their time, or both. Some large co-ops sell shares like stock to raise capital for operating expenses. Membership loans are also used for purchasing scales or hand trucks, or for paying rent to open a storefront. The cooperative makes ts own decisions on what to buy and from whom. The dealer who sells Teamster lettuce or the farmer who uses chemical sprays may find some consumers boycotting his business. Co-ops buy from wholesalers, distributors, farmers, factories, or other cooperatives. Members do most of the legwork: shopping, transporting, dividing, and packaging the goods. The Detroit-Lansing-Ann Arbor area has some 50 food cooperatives. Many of continued on page 28 Food Co-ops continued f rom page 3 these are large-scale operations that have membership in the larger buying unit, the Michigan Federation of Food Cooperatives. Others are small buying clubs servng a few families or individuals in a community. Many specialize in the common nterests of the group: cheese, produce, dairy products, even wine. The Franklin Settlement Dairy Co-op in Detroit offers members milk, cottage cheese, and eggs at prices more attractive than those at neighboring stores. The coop serves many senior citizens, who can walk to the pick-up spot (located right in the Settlement building). Family Food Co-op, serving 30 families in the Detroit área, has a $2-per-year, open membership. Once every six weeks, members shop for produce, cheese, eggs, and frozen juice concéntrate. The food is divided and bagged at Plymouth Congregational Church, not far from the market. For $7.50, members receive three bags of a wide variety of produce. Indian Village Food Co-op authorizes one member to take orders and shop at Three-For-Three, a larger store-front cooperative. While the larger co-ops vary in structure, political outlook, or philosophy of eating, there are similarities. Very often, co-ops begin as small buying clubs, increase their membership, raise funds to locate in a favorable spot in the community, and join with a larger group- like Michigan Federation of Food Cooperatives-to ncrcase their buying power. Some cooperatives seek outside funding. VISTA funds allowed three workers to establish a community food cooperative in the Cass-Trumbull area, which was expected to become self-sufficient. Operation Get Down Food Co-op on Gratiot Avenue and its West Side offshoot, Detroit Food Program, received some federal funding to get started. The two co-ops draw 500 to 800 Detroiters on a weekly basis, according to coördinator Martha Norman. On Fridays and Saturdays they offer fresh produce, plus a variety of dried beans, peas, and grains. Coördinator Norman, known for her buying savvy, says the benefits are obvious: the prices and quality of produce beat what the supermarket has to offer. "The A & P buyer might buy by looks, but we buy by taste," she says. She admits that some people don 't like the variety. "It's a grab-bag- you get what you get." Membership, $1 at Get Down and $.25 at Detroit Food Program, involves putting in a few hours of work each month. New members join, others quit when they can't meet the work commitment. Statewide food copperative tions promote the community cooperative movement, which has evolved within the past five years. The Michigan Federation of Food Cooperatives (MFOFC) provides education in consumer issues, nutrition, and the American food business. The Federation, which acts for the member co-ops, operates a warehouse n Ann Arbor and deals collectively with like federations in Wisconsin, Illinois, Minnesota, and Ohio. MFOFC buys from local farmers, small producers, and cheese faetones and sells to members at an 8 per cent markup to cover operating costs, employees' wages, and transportation. "Wherehouse" worker Felicity comments on the working aspect: "Politically, we're not in tune with the multi-national corporations. At a supermarket the labor of the worker is stolen by the owners. The Federation Wherehouse," she says, "operates with no bosses, no positions of subservience. We're dedicated to organiing people to takc care of their own needs, rather than having stores dictating what people eat." Through the Federation, member coops can order flour milled at the warehouse, dried fruit, nuts and seeds, beans, grains, nearly 30 varieties of cheese, pasta, oils, sweeteners, nut butters, soaps and shampoos. Despite signs that food cooperatives are growing n number, critics say they are doomed to failure because the volunteer work system eventually breaks down and consumers turn to the retail store for greater convenience. The most outspoken opponents are the retail merchants themselves, who stand to lose if co-ops make further inroads into their business. "We're watching the food cooperatives very carefully," said the Associated Food Dealers' Deeb. "With state and federal governments lending money and know-how, t won't bc long before retail grocers demand financing too," he said. It is that "know-how" that many consumers are finding as beneficial as the savings n dollars. Whcre else would a neophyte take on the economie system and the commodity futures market, learn how to opérate a cash register, keep books, bank, recycle, and cook left-over rutabaga twenty different ways? If you're thinking of getting on the food co-op bandwagon, two books may pave the way : Food Co-ops For Small Groups by Tony Vellela (Workman Publishing Company) and 777e Food Co-op Hand Book, by the Cooperative Handbook Collective (Houghton Mifflin). To learn the name of the co-op nearest you, contact the Michigan Federation of Food Cooperatives at (31 3) 761 -4642. Pat Williams is a Detroit-based free-lance writer and a coördinator of the Three-ForThree Food Co-op in Highland Park.
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