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New Food Co-op in the Works

By Melissa Mixon
Friday September 08, 2006

The city of Berkeley could have a full retail food co-op as early as next year if all goes as planned for a group of residents from Berkeley and Oakland, who are launching the prospective grocery.  

Organizers of the food co-op, the Berkeley Cooperative Grocery, say its purpose is to provide Bay Area residents with quality and sustainable products that are affordable.  

Planning for the intended food co-op is still at beginning stages. No location has been found and organizers are in the process of applying for a grant that they hope will help start up the nonprofit grocery.  

Elisa Edwards, one of the founders of the Berkeley Cooperative Grocery, said the food co-op will start out as a non-perishable food online ordering shop that will have two pickup times at a point centrally located in Berkeley. 

Most of the food will come from Northern California or other local vendors. After the first year she said members hope to convert the food co-op into a full retail grocery cooperative that will focus on selling cheap, sustainable, healthy, local and organic foods and products.  

This would not be the first time Berkeley has had a food co-op. Starting in the post World War II era, the Consumer’s Cooperative of Berkeley opened and later became one of the area’s main groceries until financial hardships forced the stores to close in the late 1980s.  

Edwards, who moved here with her family in January 2005, said she was surprised to find out Berkeley did not have a food co-op.  

She and her husband moved to Berkeley from Brooklyn, New York, where they were members of the Park Slope Food Co-op, the nation’s largest fully member owned and operated food co-op.  

After the move, Edwards said she started to notice and be bothered by how much more money and time she and her family were putting towards groceries. For months, Edwards said she and her husband would complain to friends.  

“It would come up in conversation about how much money we had just spent on groceries, and then at some point that shifted,” she said. “We decided, well, instead of complaining about it, we should do it ourselves.” 

To avoid problems of the previous Berkeley food co-op, Edwards said Berkeley Cooperative Grocery will be based on a model used at Park Slope, which allows only members of the food co-op to shop at the grocery store. More important, she said members are required to work two and a half hours each month so that the store can reduce grocery prices to 20 percent over wholesale cost, whereas at traditional grocery stores she said the markup is typically 70 percent in order to cover the expenses of paying employees.  

Joe Holtz, one of the founders and currently the general manager at Park Slope, said the model works because “people can’t feel money but they can feel work.”  

“Hopefully, through working, you can feel the ownership and you care about something more,” he said.  

Members of Berkeley Cooperative Grocery also have to pay a one-time $25 fee and make a $100 refundable investment in the co-op. A catch is that the work is applied to all adult members of a household, such as housemates, because otherwise more food will be going out and there will be fewer members to help work, said Julia Carpenter, one of the founding members of the coop.  

In the beginning, when the co-op is online only, she said it will be hard for some people because of convenience and time.  

“One thing people have less of than money is time,” she said. “That could rule out a lot of people.”  

But the reaction she and other members have received since they went public with the idea has been positive, she said. They started with four members and two weeks later they had 70 members and 200 people on their mailing list. 

Carpenter said they are aiming for 100 members by this month, in order to be eligible for a matching $10,000 grant from the Food Co-op 500 Program. The program’s mission is to support the development of food coops in the United States and to increase the number of them nationwide from 300 to 500 by 2015.  

With the cost of living in the Bay Area and the high costs of most healthy and organic foods and products, Carpenter said, “people are starving for” a food co-op with reduced prices. 

Founding member Michael Weiler said the most important part of the coop is bringing down the costs of organic, local, and healthy foods so that eating healthily is not “elitist.”  

“Healthy food should not be for profit. Period,” he said. “Everybody should have the same access.” 

The group plans to list menus of food and products on pamphlets and have members working a phone to take orders for people without Internet access, Weiler said.  

Dave Fogarty, community development project coordinator for the city of Berkeley, said it’s hard to say what kind of impact the food co-op would have on other grocery stores in the area because the city doesn’t have details on the size or location of the store.  

“In general, the situation in Berkeley is that we have a market that’s dominated by higher priced kind of gourmet grocery stores, Andronico’s and Whole Foods,” which, he said, didn’t exist when the original coop was built.  

He said unless the food co-op is a full-sized grocery, 20,000 square feet or more, “it probably won’t have much of an impact” on would-be competitors in Berkeley that mostly operate at that same size.  

Fogarty said, “There is a lot of sentiment here for a coop grocery.” 

Edwards said she knows there is some worry out there that the Berkeley Food Cooperative will become just a “fond memory” like the old food co-op, but that the changes in how the new one will be operated are positive. 

“I feel like this is a model that’s been proved successful and is one that will stay, “ she said.