What You Need to Know About Joining a Food Co-op in PhiladelphiaBy Kate McGovern |
Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of how-to articles related to nonprofits in the Philadelphia area.
With several food cooperatives thriving in the Philadelphia area — and at least five more on the way — we asked a co-op member to explain the appeal and how to get involved.
Food co-ops are essentially grocery stores owned and operated by their members. Many, like the Mariposa Food Co-op in West Philadelphia, pride themselves on carrying local food from sustainable sources.
Some don’t have a physical store, so members order food ahead of time and pick it up at a predetermined location or have it delivered. These are sometimes referred to as “buying clubs” (not to be confused with community-supported agriculture where members pay in advance to receive portions of a farm’s crops). But Philadelphia has several co-ops with physical stores and many, like Mariposa, are open to the public; membership is optional. The benefits of membership, however, made joining an easy decision for Leah Pillsbury.
Do Your Research
Pillsbury has been a member of Mariposa since 2007. “I was a member of [a co-op] in Brooklyn, so that’s what made me look for one” upon moving to Philadelphia’s Cedar Park neighborhood, she said.
It’s the operation’s honesty and sense of community that draws her in. If you’re uncomfortable with the profit motives of larger companies, the transparency of a member-owned co-op may be a good fit for you, she explained. A paid staff makes the day-to-day decisions but any major changes must be approved by members or the member-elected board. For example, when demand for Mariposa’s products grew drastically a few years ago, a move and expansion had to be approved by members.
Mariposa was an easy choice for Pillsbury because she can walk there from her house, but other factors may come into play in choosing a co-op. Some require volunteer hours; others offer classes. For those that are open to the public (see list, below) dropping by for a shopping trip is a good way to see whether a specific co-op is for you. “Take the opportunity to talk to other members and staff about products,” Pillsbury suggests.
For some Philadelphia residents, the nearest co-op may be only in the planning stages, but Pillsbury urges those with an interest to get involved anyway. Often, the sooner a planned store has members, the sooner it will open. The South Philly Food Co-op has about 280 committed members and hopes to open in mid to late 2014, but the date is subject to whether membership goals are reached.
The first principle of co-ops is voluntary and open membership, so there is no exclusive admissions process. To become a member at Mariposa, you need to pay a $200 membership fee and attend an orientation session.
That fee can be paid in installments and is refundable. “If I move away, I can take my investment with me,” Pillsbury explained. Additionally, Mariposa is starting a fund to subsidize the fee for individuals who cannot afford it.
Even though Mariposa is open to the public, Pillsbury says the rewards of membership are worth the fee. Not only is she part-owner of the co-op, but she enjoys a 5 percent discount at the register.
Make the Most of Your Membership
Discounts on “unbelievable” New Jersey blueberries and other local food aside, a membership at Mariposa has several other perqs, said Pillsbury.
Because another co-op principle calls for “education, training, and information,” Mariposa holds workshops for members such as Understanding Food Systems and Food Justice coming later this month. The introductory workshop will teach members about the co-op’s mission of “food justice,” which promotes access to safe and nutritious foods while protecting natural resources and ensuring fair labor practices in its production, according to Mariposa’s Food Justice & Anti-Racism committee.
A third co-op principle, “co-operation among co-operatives,” often means a discount at other co-ops, said Pillsbury. It also means that when Mariposa was planning their expansion, members of Weavers Way, a Mt. Airy co-op, were there to help, offering lessons learned from their own expansion.
Another bonus of membership at Mariposa is the ability to order items not stocked on the store’s shelves. “If we don’t have something, you can pick up any of our suppliers’ ordering books and order it directly,” said Pillsbury. This comes in handy if the store doesn’t stock your favorite flavor of juice, or if you want to buy something in bulk to save money, she explained.
Like many co-ops, Mariposa used to require members to volunteer in the store. However, they removed the requirement after they discovered it was driving away potential members. Now, volunteering is optional but earns you an additional 5 percent off at the register.
Beyond volunteering, members should consider joining their co-op’s committees or attending its meetings, said Pillsbury. Getting involved means you have a say in many aspects of the store’s operation, including product selection. Pillsbury, a development professional, was hired to run the capital campaign for the new store.
But even if membership isn’t for you, there’s still value in shopping at your local food co-op, says Pillsbury. “When you enter the co-op you already have something in common with whoever else is in there,” she said, “and that is, I think, a really cool and valuable thing.”
Photo via Mariposa Food Co-opblog comments powered by Disqus