In summer of 2017, I moved to Syracuse from Long Island to go to the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry. Coming from a suburban Long Island childhood, community had been a foreign concept to me. I’d never experienced the close-knitness of a neighborhood bound together by interdependent support and diligent advocacy for each other—until I became part of a co-op.
Right around the corner from the apartment I moved into happened to be a small cooperative grocery store where I applied for a part-time job, mostly for the sake of paying for rent and food. I started at the tail end of September that year, and just over three years later to date, I’ve moved up from part-time cashier to full-time produce manager.
While a community may crop up out of any situation where a group of people are inherently intertwined, there is something particularly special, potentially revolutionary, about adding a co-op to a community. It brings with it awareness and advocacy, and it acts as a needle weaving the threads of the community together.
The first co-op was started in 1844 by a working class group in England dissatisfied with hazardous working conditions and inadequate pay. They had little access to food and household essentials as individual families, but they realized banding together could afford them more communally than they could afford separately. In the 1960s, similar plans for food access along the West Coast of the United States were known as food conspiracies. The strategy continued to metamorphosize, but always remained primarily focused on community support.
Nowadays, co-ops remain a counterattack against inequality and social injustice. A modern day cooperative, or co-op for short, is a member-owned business. No one entity owns the building or any of the rest of its assets: the co-op members own it all, cooperatively. There is also a list of 7 Co-op Principles guiding co-op creation and operation:
- Open and Voluntary Membership: Anyone is allowed to become a member.
- Democratic Member Control: Decisions regarding how the co-op operates are made taking all members’ input into equal consideration.
- Members’ Economic Participation: Capital of the co-op comes from but also belongs to the members, who decide how it is reallocated (store renovations, patronage dividends, donations, etc.).
- Autonomy and Independence: Co-ops are controlled solely by their members; any collaboration with other entities is approved by members and allowed continued autonomy.
- Education, Training, and Information: Co-ops spread information and make it accessible to the general public.
- Cooperation Among Cooperatives: Co-ops work together with and help sustain other co-ops.
- Concern for Community: Co-ops support their communities by listening to local members’ needs and desires and working alongside local residents to satisfy them.
All co-ops have their different methods for exercising these principles. Some have a board of directors elected by members who make decisions for the store on behalf of the members. Some require volunteer work hours as a condition of membership. Some have guidelines for the percent of locally-made products they carry.
At Syracuse Cooperative Market, we put all of these Co-op Principles into practice in a way our members have agreed upon and signed up for. Sustainability, buying local, and supporting the community help us fulfill our role.
As a community resource dedicated to fostering a healthy society, we practice sustainability throughout the store, from food waste management to supporting the community. Our food waste management system keeps edible and compostable food out of landfills. Expired and damaged grocery and produce goods are donated weekly to Assumption Church food pantry on the northside of Syracuse. Any non-edible food, excluding meat and dairy, is thrown into compost bins, which are picked up by a local farmer who uses them to feed her animals. We throw out as little food as we can, so as to waste as little as possible of resources that can be salvaged and made use of.
Our selection of bulk food provides opportunities for customers to use minimal disposable plastic when shopping and instead reuse containers they’ve brought from home. We have sections for dry and liquid goods, as well as a separate spice and herbs section. Customers have gotten creative and reused plastic bread bags and plastic yogurt containers, influencing each other to follow suit.
Buying local is a function of sustainability at the co-op, as well. By sourcing products from local businesses, we keep money within the community and cut down on CO2 emissions from food transport, supporting small-scale farmers over industrial farms and avoiding contributing to air pollution.
Community support is another part of our co-op’s mission. We table at events to reach out to people who may not know they have a local grocery store within walking or biking distance. We make donations to local non-profits, businesses, and other projects contributing to the same mission of sustainable community reformation. We also buy local products as much as possible. Gabe, the grocery manager, places local orders through distributors such as Regional Access, Headwater, and Fingerlakes Farms, which source products from businesses in Central New York, the Finger Lakes, and sometimes other regions of New York. As the produce manager, I place local produce orders through Regional Access and Headwater, too, as well as several other individual farms that deliver directly like Gillie Brook, Wyllie Fox Farm, and Frosty Morning Farm.
Our previous produce manager, Stephanie, is in charge of the co-op share, which is another way we support local farmers. From mid spring to late fall, Steph puts together boxes of local produce every Friday. The share operates like a Community Supported Agriculture program, but instead of coming directly from one farm, the variety of fruits and vegetables we put in the boxes are sourced from a selection of farms every week. The system allows us to put together a diverse assortment of produce, which encourages more hesitant customers to get on board with supporting local farmers.
In March of 2020, our co-op’s mission was tested by the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. The food system was dealt a blow, along with a threat to the stability of community resources. In grocery and department stores, entire paper product aisles were empty from panicked toilet-paper purchases, canned food was wiped out from fear of not being able to shop for weeks or months. Even perishable and produce coolers were full of empty spots of out-of-stocks.
At our co-op, keeping the shelves stocked was a feat. Our distributors were low on product, due to other clients over-ordering. For a couple weeks, entire sections of our shelves were cleaned out almost every other day, if not daily. Members and non-members worried, asking questions we couldn’t provide definitive answers for. The choice was either to give up and let our community down, or work hard and fast to bring stability back. As if there wasn’t a choice at all, we did the latter.
While big grocery stores panicked, with employees being harassed by scared customers and customers feeling uncomfortable in crowded shopping areas, the co-op remained calm and acted with swift precautionary measures to assure the safety of our staff and customers before state or federal guidelines and systems were put into place or demonstrated elsewhere. We started providing curbside pick-up orders, for which we’d take shopping lists and payment from people over the phone and allow them to pick up their groceries contact-free. Jen, our social media manager, streamlined this service, creating an organized process for how to take and shop orders, as well as formatting tags to label grocery bags. Customers asked regularly showed concern and gratitude toward employees, and employees reciprocated it. A board member and a few other residents within the Syracuse community made masks for us. Later on, hazard pay was added to payroll for all staff. The sudden disorder was challenging, but we sorted through it with teamwork and dedication.
Our co-op community’s response to the pandemic provides a perfect example of co-ops’ influence on communities. We were unified and supported, and there was a sense of social responsibility to maintain that. Not only did I find a sense of purpose in my community by being classified as an essential worker during a crisis, but the additional responsibility of being in charge of ordering produce at a co-op made me feel all the more connected. I felt so grateful to go to work every day with a team of people who weren’t just going to work to pay their bills; all of us felt some level of commitment to each other and the community.
Now — months deep into the same crisis we’re still living with and supporting our community through — sitting at my computer in the office putting together orders, prepping lettuce and cilantro in the kitchen, stocking local apples and squash on the sales floor, talking with regular customers in the aisles, I never cease to feel a deep-rooted connection to a community I have a place in.
Our general manager, Jeremy, told me that once, in a coaching session, he was asked: “What do you do to celebrate a job well done?” A little thrown off, he responded: “Do more work.” It’s become a joke amongst the staff at the co-op, but in all seriousness, it feels like a summary of our co-op’s and other co-ops’ mission statements. Improvement may be a cause for celebration, but improvement doesn’t have a ceiling. That’s the whole point of working toward a better and more just society. There’s always more work to do — and co-ops help rally their communities together and encourage participation in that work. Co-ops don’t stop at enough food security, enough community resources, enough education; we continue to expand and improve without bound, tirelessly working for social betterment.
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