South Bronx co-op offers healthy choices

Shopping at the South Bronx Food Co-op

The co-op has a new location where members trade work for lower prices

By Sarah Grieb

It’s Tia Singleton’s first day at the South Bronx Food Cooperative and she’s been breaking down boxes and learning how to use the cash register.

Singleton will spend three hours working at the co-op’s recently-opened store on Third Avenue. Then she’ll become a shopper, filling her grocery basket with meat, produce and household products priced from anywhere from five to 20 percent lower than in a conventional market.

The South Bronx Food Cooperative’s mission is to make nutritious food affordable by cutting out labor costs. Instead of employees, the co-op’s members, who are also its main customers, run the store. They choose the food that’s for sale, stock the shelves, man the cash register and keep the place clean, among other things.

At first glance the co-op looks like an oversized bodega, with a hand-painted mural behind the register substituted for the usual cigarettes. Though the set-up is that of a small grocery store, instead of household-name goods, the shelves are stocked with brands like “Back to Nature” or “Made in Nature,” boasting “all natural” and “organic” labels.

The store carries local, conventional and organic produce, natural household products and grass-fed and free-range meat, as well as soy-based meat alternatives.

Being part of the co-op “feels productive, like I’m doing something for the community,” said Singleton, who lives in Coop City but joined the food co-op to get the kind of groceries she would normally have to pay more for and travel further to get.

In November 2007 the co-op opened at the Nos Quedamos community center on Melrose Avenue, but was only open once a week on Saturdays. Now, in its new location, it has an actual storefront and regular hours to make it accessible to more people.

Zena Nelson, a Bronx resident and one of the main co-op’s main founders, started it for personal reasons. People in her family suffer from high blood pressure, and she knew people who died as a result of obesity.

Health organizations cite the scarcity of fresh, nutritious food in the South Bronx as one of the causes of the obesity and diabetes epidemics that its residents face. Mott Haven and Hunts Point have the highest proportion of diabetes in the New York City—double the citywide average. Twenty-five percent of adults suffer from obesity, according to the latest community health survey by the city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

“I understand the health issues that are involved with it,” said Nelson, “but in addition to that, as an MBA student, I understood why people couldn’t afford good food here—the prices, the markups.”

The co-op is housed in what used to be a pharmacy. For the past two months members have worked to get the new store ready to open. The old counter had to be torn out, new floors laid and renovations to the stock room area. Additionally, the walk-in refrigerator needed to be assembled and installed. There’s still more work to come, including the addition of a juice bar in the coming months.

“It’s nice to have a good place to get food in neighborhood,” said Hollie Webb, 23, who works at a bank in Manhattan and lives four blocks away. She used to drive to Westchester to go shopping, or shop at more expensive stores in the Manhattan, she said.

Now she knows she’s saving money because she uses a financial website to track her spending and can see the difference when she shops at the co-op compared to stores like Whole Foods, which also specializes in organic food.

Webb believes that one of the hardest things is getting people unfamiliar with what a co-op is to understand how it works.

Part of the reason the co-op can offer lower prices is that its members are the workers, and the more members they get, the lower prices will be, said Erin Axelrod, 21, an intern. She added that since the co-op is run by its members, they have a say in everything. If there’s something they want the store to carry, the co-op will try to get it. She thinks that’s one of the best things about a cooperative business.

Members pay a one-time fee and are required to volunteer three hours each month. There are many different ways people can put in their time in besides just working in the store. “One female doctor had a ball with a nail gun,” when a crew of cooperators installed the new floor, laughed Isaac Purdue, a co-op member who lives in Manhattan.

While volunteering is work, it’s not exactly like a regular job. In slow times members chat and joke together, and people do their grocery shopping at the end of their shifts. Webb said met a lot of great people there she was glad.

Linda Carela, who lives nearby says she used to feel that she “slept in the Bronx, but didn’t live there.”

Now, she says, she feels like part of the community. She even met people who live in her apartment building but whom she didn’t know before joining the co-op, she said.

Because it’s new, the co-op is still figuring things out. One woman who works nearby came into the store to buy juice, but left because the amateur staff couldn’t locate its price. And the co-op hasn’t yet done much community outreach. “Everything’s not going to be perfect-looking because we’re not corporate,” said Nelson.

While they strongly encourage people to join, the co-op isn’t just for members. Each price tag lists two prices, and the less is expensive one is for members. One breakfast cereal is labeled $3.99 for members and $4.99 for nonmembers, and a deluxe mac and cheese dinner is $4.09 and $4.49, for example.

Mott Haven resident Brenda Gomez, 37, shops at the co-op but hasn’t joined because she thinks it too expensive. She’s a single mom, but doesn’t qualify for public assistance, which lowers the membership fee. Nevertheless, she says she pays less for the organic milk she buys at the co-op than other places charge, and it’s the only place she’s found organic products in her neighborhood.

Now that the shakedown period is ending, Nelson hopes both membership and the co-op’s services will expand. In addition to the juice bar, plans call for cooking and nutrition classes. Yoga classes taught by co-op members are scheduled to start in the next month. They will be offered at a discount to members.

“It’s a popular myth is that people in this community don’t want this stuff, and we’re proving that wrong,” said Purdue.

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