Ling: A Food Coop for Us All

I have always battled with the practice of eating healthy food. Using my smartphone I don’t even have to talk to someone if I want to order a barbecue chicken and bacon pizza. One of the hardest things I had to do was to stop eating the food that is easily available in my community. However, this is a problem with our entire country.

America is one of the most overweight countries in the world, with over 30 percent of the adult population considered obese and a high rate of Type II diabetes according the World Health Organization(www.WHO.int). This can affect sustainability on many different levels such as increase in cost to healthcare or maybe even the elimination of healthy options if the food isn’t being purchased or demanded. One of the reasons for this obesity problem is the lack of knowledge about the risks of being overweight. Another reason is a general apathy towards the kinds of foods we eat. The Heart Attack Grill in Nevada offers free food to anyone over 375 pounds and you can order an Octuple Bypass Burger which has 8 beef patties with 40 slices of bacon! Examples like these pokes fun at the seriousness of unhealthy eating. Even their waitress dress like nurses that prep you for “surgery.” Looking at this example it is easy to understand how food has changed from “eating to live” to “living to eat” in America.

If you go into your food pantry or cabinet and look at the ingredients of anything there, you will probably come across things like “No preservatives, trans-fat, saturated-fat, high fructose corn syrup, organic, whole wheat, all natural, and 100% juice.” Most of what’s in our foods are so scientifically opaque that we don’t even think twice about what we are really eating and most of us just eat. That is a major problem which contributes to the obesity in the USA.

Taking all of the above into consideration, I wanted to examine my community with regards to food and what is available. Is it a problem of people not caring what they eat? Does my community have access to healthy food?

I drove around my neighborhood in areas where there were an abundance of places to eat or purchase food. I observed that while there were many places to get food, most of them were fast food, and the choices mostly consisted of Dunkin Donuts, Popeye’s Fried Chicken, Kennedy (not Kentucky) Fried Chicken, or Chinese Food restaurants. There were bodegas covering each corner of every other block, with some blocks having two. Children formed long lines to get after-school specials at the fried chicken spot. This enforces a habit (which I too had become accustomed to) that steers youth to poor choices in food. Popeyes, in particular, was the most abundant franchise with four locations in a relatively small radius. In a predominantly black community, there are often a lot of fried chicken restaurants, which may be stereotypical, but they are full of customers each time I pass them. As I started to head to a more affluent part of Queens County, there was change in the types of stores. Bodegas and fast food were replaced by coffee shops and unique restaurants such as Japanese, Mexican, and Italian. Even in the lower part of Brooklyn, I stumbled across an organic Key Foods which I had never seen before.

Link to a video showing my trip through a better part in comparison to where I live.

http://julius-ivey.tumblr.com/post/76244039688/my-friend-and-i-decided-to-compare-the-different

Link to a map of four Popeyes restaurants in a small area close together where I live with pictures.

http://julius-ivey.tumblr.com/post/75451720473/isnt-it-a-thing-of-beauty-in-about-a-square-mile

I asked a relative of mine if she knew about options to bring healthy food into our community eating better food. She mentioned the Park Slope Food Coop as an option which I had never heard about before.

Park Slope Food Coop was started in 1973 by a group of neighbors in Brooklyn, New York. Their goal was to provide affordable, healthy food to anyone who wanted it. Currently, the PSFC (Park Slope Food Coop) has 15,000 members, mostly all are working members. As a member you share ownership of the Coop, which includes your input to the decisions that help improve the organization in the future (Parkslope.com). I checked the website and there are some barriers to entry; however, they did not seem too hard to overcome in order to gain membership. You must attend an orientation (currently there were no available orientations), and then pay a $25 non-refundable joining and $100 investment into the Coop, which can be returned once you cancel your membership. They do offer lower rates if you qualify (food stamps, Medicaid, Section 8 Housing) which make this a viable option for everybody looking for an alternative way to purchase healthy food. Lastly, an important factor about being a member of Food Coop is that it is required that everyone in your house that is an adult must become a member too, unless they are dependents. This is very interesting to me as it could promote healthy choices amongst a group of people instead of just a single person living in a house or apartment. The downside is that if you can’t agree on it with your housemates (friends, relatives, spouses) than you cannot become a member on your own unless you live alone. Along with the required fees and time commitment, this could indeed become quite commitment.

I interviewed a member at a Food co-op in Park Slope, Brooklyn. She has been a member at the Food Co-op for 26 years and she informed me about what it is exactly and how it works. “A food co-op is a healthy organic gourmet food store that offer affordable price to its members. It is able to keep its prices low because it doesn’t have pay employees for labor and basically requires it’s members to work a 2 hours and 45 minutes shift within a certain time period to maintain a membership.” She also told me that are a few people who do make money working there but she wasn’t entirely sure how that worked. I asked her about the benefits of being a member and she said, “They only mark up the market price by 20 % and most other places I’ve been to mark the prices up at about 40-60%. I feel like it’s a great way to get healthy organic food at a real affordable price.”

Nevertheless, having been a member for over two and a half decades, she has noticed a lot of changes that concern her about the organization. She noticed that the selection of food has changed drastically. Originally offering strictly vegan food when she first became a member, it now offers meat and fish which are grass fed and are still healthy options. Even though she understands the need to offer a wider selection, she believes that this has also created an increase in the amount of members that work and shop at the food co-op. “This creates the problem of being crowded when shopping and also they couldn’t think of jobs for members to do because there are too many people working at a given time.” She added that there was a point where Food Coop could not accept new members because it was too crowded. Another issue is actually the location, as she lives in Bedford-Stuyvesant and believes that her area won’t have a food co-op even though it is being gentrified.

I checked out reviews on Yelp.com and there were mostly positive reviews. Most people found a sense of community with members and feel that the low prices made it worth any of the hassles of having to work once a month for the benefits. Common complaints amongst all reviews are crowdedness, long lines, rude people (coworkers), and difficulty finding what you may need. The negative reviews seemed to complain about the fact that you have to work to enjoy the benefits, and that it is difficult to join or take a tour. One woman complained that to even see inside the store you need to be escorted by a guard. Lastly, some people felt that the environment was elitist, especially when dealing with members who have been there for over 15 years.

I think the Food Coop is a great idea that should be incorporated into more neighborhoods, especially the one I live in. It grants access to healthy organic foods at really low prices with the only caveat of having to work every once in a while. Unfortunately, I think the barriers to create a Food Coop are quite hard. Talking with residents in my neighborhoods, friends, and family, the general consensus about food was more about convenience than about the food itself. The people I talked with in my area did not care about much about the organic aspect of healthy food and they did not want to travel very far in order to get that food. The idea of the Food Coop (which was many of my friends and neighbors were ignorant of, including myself) did garner positive reactions from younger adults who felt like it was a great way to save money and feel like part of something to help their community. Middle age residents felt that even the 2 hours and 45 minutes of work was too out the way and time consuming and would rather continue shopping at a regular grocery store.

The Food Coop in Park Slope has been operating for 41 years which is relatively not very old. I think it has room for improvements such as creating expansions to reduce overcrowding and provide services for more areas. Reducing the crowdedness of the store may help to reduce temperaments that some of the reviews complained about. Establishing a method or plan in which older participants are more inclined to join, such as reduced workloads or better discounts, could help the growth of a Food Coop in a neighborhood such as mine. I agree with the idea of having an entire household requiring a membership as it helps the Food Coop and also spreads the idea of it around much better. Word of mouth would spread much faster with groups than one person alone.

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