I was minding my own business heading down 5th Avenue through Park Slope, Brooklyn on the 63 bus, when a commotion at the Union Street stop caused me to look up from my book. An attractive young woman heavily laden with canvas grocery bags overflowing with disparate leafy vegetables was fighting her way through the bus’ narrow doors. Curiously, I watched as she fumbled with her purse in search of her elusive MetroCard while trying to maintain control of her unwieldy produce. With an amused smirk, I thought, “Someone hasn’t thought through the whole grocery procurement thing very well.” My interest would have stopped there, but as she squished into the seat behind me I was assaulted by an especially aggressive stalk of organic celery leaping from its bag and landing on the back of my neck.
“Oh my god, are you okay?” she said in a voice so earnest that my instinctive annoyance evaporated.
“Yeah, thanks, I’m fine” I said, smiling in a weak attempt at chivalry as she stuffed the errant stalk back in its place. I noticed a logo on one of her grocery bags and innocently asked, “Um, what’s the Park Slope Food Coop?”
I was only trying to spark up polite bus conversation with a pretty stranger on a sunny Sunday afternoon, but wow, this woman was really excited about being a member of the “Coop.” For blocks or more she regaled me with all that was awesome about the coop. Her passion was infectious. She had me at local organic produce 30 percent cheaper than Whole Foods, but it seemed that membership in a collective of food-savvy Brooklynites with the goal of community awareness and cooperative agriculture was what really had this nameless young woman so jazzed.
Upon returning home I Googled Park Slope Food Coop and wondered, “Could I become a member? Could I too attain that ethereal level of veggie-centered bliss?” When my roommate came home a few hours later I asked him, “Have you ever heard of The Park Slope F…”
“Food Coop!” he cut me off. “For years I’ve been wanting to become a member, but I never had a roommate who was interested. Do you want to join?” He breathlessly filled me in on the lost years spent longing to be part of this socio-grocerial movement. I know it sounds a little weird, but I was hooked. I had awoken that morning totally ignorant of the place, but by 8 p.m. I had scheduled an orientation for the following Wednesday night.
In the intervening, days I asked some Brooklyn friends what they knew about the Coop, and it seemed I was the only person in Kings County who had neither heard of, nor had an opinion on The Park Slope Food Coop. Comments ranged from “A serious attempt at sustainable and responsible food consumption” to “They’re a bunch of food fascists!” Needless to say, I was intrigued.
When I entered the Coop for the first time it looked like a normal city grocery store.It was crowded, a little grungy, but this grocery store had a choke point at the entrance where members, in order to gain entrance, were asked to show a Coop picture ID. A growing contingent of newbies, my roommate and I among them, milled around the uninitiated side of Checkpoint Charlie, and eventually were ushered upstairs to sign in and await our indoctrination, um, I mean orientation. The room was a spartan re-purposed storeroom, not unexpected for a not-for-profit concern such as this. There were seats for about 25 people, an overhead projector and a blackboard, but what struck me were the several large signs posted about the room delineating various dos and don’ts. The admonishments were harmless enough, but their design was eerily reminiscent of an East German border crossing circa 1948.
We were cheerfully greeted by a few members of the New Member Orientation Squad (really) who saw to it that we were coffee-d, comfy and in our seats at the prescribed time. A very cheerful bearded guy greeted us and began the presentation. It felt somewhere between a Save the Whales rally and an Amway meeting. We heard the history of The Coop, and learned its basic operating philosophy. I was impressed with the standards for what they will allow to be considered organic, their focus on local farming and the mark up policy which kept this non-profit non profitable while covering all costs.
The member rules and disciplinary policies at first blush seemed a bit heavy handed. For example, every person in the household must be a member, and hooking up your friends with inexpensive bananas and such was considered stealing from the cooperative. It was easy to see how violators would cry fascism, but being the largest and the oldest, food coop in the country, I gave them the benefit of the doubt that these rules were needed to manage an organization of 13 thousand working members. Yes, working. To be a member with shopping privileges one must work a two hour and forty-five minute shift every four weeks. On an average day with 50 people working, only half a dozen or so are actual employees — everyone else is a member on a work shift.
I signed up that first night which made me eligible not only for a chic Park Slope Food Coop mesh shopping bag, but I was also allowed to shop. I’d love to say I was as excited as my friend from the bus, but it was getting late and I wasn’t emotionally prepared to shop, or maybe at that early stage the enormity of my decision had yet to hit me. Still, I managed to fill my new bag with yogurt, granola and several varieties of apples and tomatoes.
There are two levels to being a Coop member. The first is the weekly grocery shopping, and the next is the monthly work shift. Shopping is great. The place is usually jam-packed and though negotiating the amateur staff is sometimes challenging, there is a very present “we’re all in this together” feel to the place. No one asks, “Do you have any more fresh fennel?” It’s, “Do we have any more fresh fennel?” It may sound hokey but it makes a difference. The produce, dairy and baked goods are top notch, extremely fresh and the prices are best one can find anywhere in Brooklyn. I rarely buy meat there, and though it’s all of very high quality, organic, free range and gently killed, it’s really expensive. I go to Trader Joe’s.
Working your shift can be a drag at times, but missing a shift makes a big red alert pop up on the screen when you check in eliciting a disapproving look from the gatekeeper. I signed on to the Receiving Squad, and I picked an early morning time slot so that I’m done just as the place opens. I get there at a quarter after five, and I generally unload produce trucks till about 8 a.m. I know this may sound pretty boring, and like a lot of hard work, but for a guy who sits at a computer all day, getting to play blue collar manly man for a few hours every four weeks is a blast.
Since that fateful Sunday afternoon, I have never run into the pretty young woman who first shared the Coop gospel with me, but if I ever do, I plan to offer her one of my FTOP shift credits. Oh, what is an FTOP shift credit? Sorry, that’s members only information.