If you are interested in good, healthy food at cheap prices, you've probably at least considered joining a food co-op. It takes more effort than belonging to a CSA, (I think joining a CSA is best only for those with the culinary imagination to make appealing meals out of one month of tomatoes and broccoli and eleven months of turnips and sand.) and isn't as convenient as shopping at the nearest grocery store, but gives members access to a wealth inexpensive, high quality food and an inexhaustible well of self-satisfaction.
Unfortunately, many would be co-op members are put off by the prospect of having to shop amid socialists that only stop hacky-sacking long enough to roil in hemp oil and pull tacks from their grubby bare feet. While there is some truth to this stereotype, it is far from the reality of the urban food co-op. You might find the truth equally unattractive, though.
I won't give you an argument for or against joining a co-op, just a description of my experiences at New York City's largest co-op, and provide a peek behind the veil that separates members and the suckers who pay $14 a pound for organic salad greens. What you choose to do with that is none of my business. I would only add that I am possibly risking my life by sharing this information with “outsiders.”
Your membership at the co-op starts with one of the four New Member Orientations that are offered each week. If you enjoy Powerpoint presentations about community-owned grocery stores, you are in for a treat. On the up side, you get free chips and cookies, so I advise going hungry or wearing loose pants, with tapered legs, suitable for stuffing with food, to get the most out of this once-in-a-membership opportunity.
When I went, there were about 30 people there, almost all of whom immediately paid their $25 joining fee and $100 member investment (which you get back if you quit) right then and there. Assuming that's typical, that's about 100 new members a month. Many of them quickly drop out or replace members that quit or move away, but the ranks of the co-op are bulging like an American child's stomach. That's why, as the newest of 14,000+ members, you can expect to get the worst job at the least convenient time. Once they sign you up for the 5 AM Tuesday “B week” janitorial shift, you're in. You'll have to work this shift once a month or you will be put on “work alert” and then suspended if you don't make it up, plus an additional punitive shift within ten days.
As a side note, I was personally relieved to find out that they dropped the “blood in, blood out” policy in the mid-nineties.
How is it possible to assign 14,000 people a monthly work slot in one grocery store? I have no idea. If you do the math, it would mean that more than 450 members would have to be working per day. Even with lots of people missing shifts, that number sounds absurd, so something screwy must be going on. Rather than speculate what, lets move right along.
I can attest that if you have enough people working at any given time, not nearly enough work gets done. Any job that involves “cleaning” usually entails wiping off the soap residue left from the last cleaning about two hours ago. The situation would be even worse were it not for the gross incompetence of most of the workers.
It would seem that most co-op members have either never worked at a job that required actual labor or did it so long ago that they have forgotten how to do it. It can take a team of two people an entire shift to stock one yogurt cooler about the size of a car. While sometimes frustrating, it can be fun to watch someone in business formal stock one apple at a time with a confused, embarrassed look on their face. It turns out that an MFA or law degree leave one ill-prepared for unloading trucks.
Luckily, my desire to keep my potential in its pristine “unrealized” state has kept me familiar with menial labor. The time passes fairly quickly, and when you're done, you won't have to do it again for another month, about the time it takes to forget how to do everything you just did.
The stuff you will find at the co-op is really good, and it's cheap. The produce is the biggest draw for me. They have everything that I would ever want, from kale to avocados (91 cents!), and almost everything is organic. Even more than for the pricing, I value the produce section for the selection and quality. The huge volume of shoppers and high turnover also insures that it's all fresh. That goes for the bulk section, too; you never have to worry about the oil in the walnuts turning because they never sit too long. You can save a lot on spices, herbs, and teas, too, many of which are hard to find other places.
The cheeses are very good, though the stock changes frequently, so when a favorite turns up, you have to grab it. At the prices, though, it's worth it to experiment and try to find a new favorite. If you are a big fan of dairy, you can finally afford to buy organic, grass fed milk. I can't vouch for the meats, because I don't eat 'em, but I think they are pretty good as well, though I think it's a bit pricier than other things.
The groceries are like what you would find in most “health food” stores, but cheaper. Like most of its ilk, a ton of shelf space is devoted to organic chips and cane-sugar-sweetened cookies, which, science has proven, actually reduce body fat and improve memory.
Lines, lines / everywhere a line / blockin' out the scenery / breakin' my mind
When do you shop? After work or on weekends? Guess what? So does everybody else. With so many people belonging to the co-op, any high traffic time becomes insane. On a Sunday afternoon, it's not unusual to see the non-express line weave through almost the entire store.
It would be a lot of work for anyone, but especially for people who use a register for three hours a month, and are oblivious/tickled pink by their constant errors. (If you can’t identify chard, why must you blame me for your ignorance, Blythe Danner-like cashier?) At least when subjected to horrible customer service at CVS, you can tell yourself, “I guess I'd be sluggish and angry, too, if I had to work in a CVS, and judging by those portrait tattoos on her neck, she's also got at least three children to worry about.”
At the co-op you get the rare luxury of being delayed and condescended to by “workers” who live in apartments you will never be able to afford.
The co-op has good food for cheap, but is always crowded with people who buy “architect glasses” for their annoying children. I now realize that I am carrying more anger towards co-op cashiers than I would have guessed.
Federico Garduño has a blog with Dan Milledge called BentMagnus.com, which details their imaginary hero.
(Photos courtesy of Talking Retail, Bloomberg, and NextUp.)