Wegmans and SuperFresh aren’t only stores keeping pantries and refrigerators full in our area. Community-run grocers, called food co-ops, are popping up all over Philly, offering local alternatives to big-chain grocery stores.
Put simply, food co-ops are a kind of business model, in which the stores are owned by community members, each holding a share of the business; some require members to pay an annual fee, sort of like at BJ’s Wholesale Club. They’re typically governed by a board, elected by and chosen from the membership. They make the policy decisions and may hire a professional management team to run the day-to-day operations. Members are sometimes asked to volunteer their time to keep costs low.
Alison Fritz, South Philly Food Co-op board president, says the benefit to this set-up is that community members have a say in where their food comes from. They’re also able to more closely connect to these food sources and aren’t beholden to revenue and earnings goals set by a corporate headquarters in another state or country. (Ahem: Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s.)
So what’s with the upswing in popularity over recent years? Fritz attributes it to the trying economy: “This current wave of co-op start-ups has a lot to do with the economic uncertainty we’re all facing and mirrors similar co-op waves that the U.S. experienced in the 1930s and 1970s,” she explains. “For a neighborhood like South Philly, it gives a measure of self-determination where neighbors can take charge and create a business that serves their needs, instead of sitting idly by and waiting for some large corporation to satisfy that need.”
And that need is a resilient business that provides accessible, local food, brought to the table by collaborating communities. It’s no wonder these operations are thriving here.
“Philadelphians have a lot of pride [in] their city. After all, our democracy began here,” says Lena Helen, board president of Kensington Community Food Co-op. “They also have a strong identity with their neighborhoods. [But] the economic de-investment of the 1970s and 1980s left the people [with very little]. Co-ops have the real potential to revitalize that.”
In just two years, South Philly Food Co-op has amassed a following of more than 280 members, an impressive feat for a group still working toward opening a physical storefront for their organization. And SPFC isn’t alone in its storefront planning; Kensington members are working to open a brick-and-mortar store, too.
But it doesn’t end there. Community members in other areas, like Ambler, Bethlehem, East Falls and Manayunk/Roxborough, are sewing seeds for even newer start-ups, while Creekside Co-op in Elkins Park is set to open by the end of the year. Add these to the region’s longstanding mainstays: Weaver’s Way in Mount Airy, the Swarthmore Co-op in Delco, and Mariposa in West Philly, which debuted a new store last spring.
So before you jump in the car and head to Whole Foods to buy your all-naturals, consider supporting one of Philly’s local community-run stores or even joining one as a member. After all, the first Philly co-op dates all the way back to 1862. I think it’s a sign; we’re a city meant for co-ops, people.
Click here for a nationwide database of food co-ops.