Reflections on the Food Co-op Movement

When I joined the food co-op movement in 1980, my West Philadelphia co-op offered affordable food access to students like myself and others who didn’t have a car to get to the grocery store.  The co-op was open only two nights a week, the limited selection of products did not include meat, poultry or fish, members worked two hours per month and the general manager walked to work barefoot. 

Today, my neighborhood food co-op is open seven days a week, carries a breathtaking number of products to rival Whole Foods, shift work is optional and is managed by a professional staff that covers human resources, finance, IT and community relations. It is also one of the costliest food markets in the city.   

I recently did a market basket comparison at five other grocery stores, and the prices were as follows: Aldi, $135; Trader Joe’s, $168; Giant, $180; Shop-Rite, $184; and Acme, $203. Weavers Way came in at $223 for working members, $235 for non-working members. That is conceivably a $100 differential in weekly grocery shopping for a family of four, or $5,200 per year. 

(I chose non-organic products when available, but my basket was made up primarily of whole foods such as dried and canned legumes; grains such as rolled oats, rather than manufactured breakfast cereals; nuts; fresh and frozen produce; minimally processed dairy products such as plain yogurt rather than flavored; fresh fish and a few inexpensive meats; standard baking ingredients; oil, vinegar, honey; and a handful of grocery items that the home cook might need, such as mayonnaise and mustard.)

The Food Justice Committee has worked hard to address this: Seniors and people on assistance programs like TANF or SNAP can get a 10 percent discount, bringing the bill down to $211, or even a 15 percent discount if they are also working members, bringing the bill down to $199.  And a senior who is also on assistance and a working member can get a 25 percent discount, bringing the bill down to $176. However, when only 28 percent of Weavers Way Co-op households are working members, I am increasingly uncomfortable with the thought that some members of the community may have to work to make their groceries affordable, rather than work to participate in the co-op principle of shared ownership.

According to the U.S. Census, in 2014, the 19119 zip code where Weavers Way is headquartered is composed of households living in a variety of financial circumstances: 

  • 4.6% of our neighbors have household incomes of less than $5,000.  
  • 5.1% have household incomes of $5,000 to $9,999.  
  • 5.4% have household incomes of $10,000 to $14,999.  
  • 5.8% have household incomes of $15,000 to $19,999.  
  • 5.2% have household incomes of $20,000 to $24,999.  
  • 7% have household incomes of $25,000 to $34,999.  
  • 11.5% have household incomes of $35,000 to $49,999.  
  • 17.6% have household incomes of $50,000 to $74,999.  
  • 11.1% have household incomes of $75,000 to $99,999.  
  • 15 % have household incomes of $100,000 to $149,999.  
  • And 11.8% have household incomes of $150,000 and above.  

Furthermore, these differences in household income cannot begin to reveal the differences in financial security among households. For instance, some neighbors are paying out of pocket for health insurance, medications or both, while others enjoy generous health plans provided through employers. Some neighbors know their only source of income when they can no longer work is what they have managed to save, while others are looking forward to employer-provided defined benefit pensions. In this context, I am increasingly uncomfortable with the assumption that all households are in a similar position to bear the “true costs” of food production.  

The Co-op’s decision to prioritize shelf space to organic foods means that legumes — which are typically promoted as a healthier, more economical and environmentally conscious alternative to meat — cost $1.59 a pound., while chicken thighs are 99 cents a pound at Giant. And a pound of frozen produce (often a more economical and nutritious way to purchase produce) that would cost $1.50 at Giant costs $2.65 at the Co-op.  

The Co-op’s commitment to local sourcing means that locally-sourced pierogies from across the river in New Jersey costing $5.02 a pound have displaced Mrs. T’s, which cost $2.99 a pound, and are produced in Shenandoah, PA, in a plant that employs nearly 230 people.

The Co-op’s commitment to fair trade means that the only kind of sugar available to the home baker costs $2.49 a pound vs. 50 cents a pound at the supermarket, even though numerous treats can be found in the Co-op, including dozens of locally-sourced baked goods, that are likely made with commodity sugar.

My research into other food co-ops reveals that Weavers Way is not unique, but it is a front-runner among co-ops and has even been asked by the national association of co-operative grocers to be a leader in growing the food cooperative movement. That means that the Weavers Way membership has a special responsibility to rethink what it means to be “community-owned food markets open to everyone.”  Otherwise, we risk turning healthy eating and food co-ops into something in which only the affluent can participate.