Monday, August 02, 2010

Ode to the Park Slope Food Co-op

Every so often the NY Times likes to run a snarky article about how controlling and smug the Park Slope Food Coop is. This one is an example, although it's not as whiny as some of the blogs, and sites like Gawker. The folks posting there complain about having to work, and missing shifts, and being suspended, and having make-ups. They often call the members -- always the other members, not themselves -- entitled and self-righteous. The bottom line is that they want the cheap, fantastic, mostly organic food the coop sells, but they don't want to pay for it, in either money or labor.

So I am here to say, I loved the co-op; four years after moving away I still miss it; and in the 15 +/- years that I was a member, it had the largest effect, by far, on what I ate -- in a very good way. The coop's mission is to sell good food cheap, and the way to do that is to buy in quantity and cut labor costs. So it expanded its square footage and it added members. Something like 80 percent of the labor is by members, in other words--unpaid. That's the part some people like to complain about.

But here's the thing they don't understand: Forget its hippy-dippy origins, or any idea of collectivism or cooperatives: The coop is just like Costco. It's a private buying club. Anyone can join, and the price of admission isn't $50 a year, it's labor. The payoff is cheap, good food, much of it local. Apparently 15,000 people think it's worth it. I know I sure did, and in addition to the food, I made friends, had incredible conversations, practiced work skills, learned a lot about grocery stores and my neighborhood and local politics and food politics, and also music, and parenting, and the latest fiction -- all those conversations people have when they're working together. It's a (cooperative) Costco, and if you don't want that, don't join. But if you do, here's some tips toward a more enjoyable experience:

-- Allow me to repeat that: You don't have to join. And if you do, and you don't like it, quit. No one put a gun to your head. Stop spoiling it for everyone else.

-- Quit yer gripin'. In my experience, the people who complain about the place are the entitled ones. They want their cheap food but they don't want to pay for it. They want to stay out clubbing until 2am but not have a hangover in the morning -- or not have to work that 8am shift. Sign up for a 4pm shift, if clubbing is important to you. Granted, some members can be obnoxious and rule-oriented, but that's a reaction to a certain entitled population that thinks it can get something for nothing. When I was there, the office folks could make me crazy with their rigidity, but one of the best things I did was work in the office for about a year; I saw what they were up against. I understand how complicated this thing could get, and I applauded them -- from a distance -- for their efforts.

-- Stop acting like the coop owes you something. Shopping on Saturday afternoon at any grocery store is hell, why should the coop be any different? They don't have your favorite peanut butter that week? You're suspended? Cry me a river.

-- Having trouble making your shift? Switch. There's no requirement to work in the store. Work in the office. If you work in customer service, maybe you want to do something different, write the newsletter, or take inventory, or stock dairy. Among my several jobs, I chose to be a shopping squad leader because I really wanted to practice some of the management skills I'd been learning.

--- Find a squad you can make and a leader you can work for. Not every squad leader was as strict as the stated rules--I never gave two make-ups for a missed shift, especially if the (reliable) squad member called in advance. It wasn't necessary and it chased good people away. If someone was consistently unreliable, well, then, I might give two shifts, as required, or I might even ask them to shape up or find another squad; we're trying to do some work here. I also always gave regulars the jobs they wanted, which was usually check-out. I would kick make-ups off to do stocking or other less-enjoyable jobs. As a result, we had a tight, reliable squad that enjoyed working together.

-- You don't have to work regular hours. You can work on a project, like the monthly meetings, or the newsletter, and keep track of your hours. It means learning a bit about the different jobs, maybe waiting until the one you want is available, and otherwise doing some legwork, but so what?

-- The reason there's all these rules and instructions is because people only work 2.75 hours every four weeks. They forget, especially if they are new, and especially if they are consistently late, or absent. Show up, show up on time, learn your job, do it without a lot of drama, and get your cheap food.

 -- Along those lines, remember that this is a multi-million dollar a year business -- $40 million last year, I gather -- with 15,000 members, it's not a hippy-dippy woo-woo place to get some brown rice. There have to be rules, and a certain rigidity, and apparently it works. It's been successful, as it's the longest continuously running worker-run coop in the country. That's a big deal.

God bless the Park Slope Food Co-op. I haven't been a member since late 2006, and things may have changed. But I'm sure this little bodega is still an anchor to the community, still a model for all of us,  still a crucial response to big box stores, a living, successful example for alternative ways of eating, working, shopping, and living.


  1. I would feel guilty about all the shoplifting I do.

  2. I like this entry a lot. I never joined the co-op because of our time in LI, but, admittedly, the fearful rumors put me off, too. This puts the whining in such perspective.


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