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Co-op

General Albany observations:

-Our co-mingled recycling bin was very thoroughly explained at to us, which was cute. Apparently co-mingled recycling is a new thing in Albany.

-When trying to learn about places to live in Albany, a colleague sent me a map with different neighborhoods highlighted on it. The northern part of Albany was all highlighted in red, to avoid, while the southern part was highlighted in green. Bicycling along Clinton Ave, in the northern portion, I've been observing a large proportion of rowhouses that feature the Scarlet Letter. I've also been riding past a rowhouse with a sign outside that says, "Priced to sell fast - $30,000." One other thing I've noticed about those neighborhoods is that there are a lot of people who live there who like to hang out on their front steps - people of all ages, sitting out on the stoop. I love seeing people out, interacting. On Monday's route in the morning, I watched two people who were working to ligh up a barbecue grill in front of their rowhouse, with cardboard and lighter fluid.

I am not seeing nearly as much evidence of complete homelessness as in California. Just poverty and racial segregation.

-

Almost immediately upon arriving, [personal profile] scrottie and I went over to check out the local grocery co-op, as I wrote about previously. I would have joined up immediately, but they said they have all new prospective members attend a 3-hour orientation meeting first. So I signed up to attend the orientation meeting that was held last night.

It was amazing.

But not like you might think, exactly.

A, the person who led the orientation, was one of the original co-op members, and is a woodworker and storyteller. This co-op dates back to the 70's, and he gave us the full lengthy, involved story of the co-op's history, from its early origins up through the more recent drama and how it wound up reaching its current state.

Equally interesting were the other people attending the orientation. A had us go around and introduce ourselves and talk about our experiences with other co-ops and why we were interested in joining Honest Weight. There was a woman who had driven in 45 minutes from an outlying small town because her nearby options sucked, a man who had been working to change up his diet and lifestyle who had lost a lot of weight and was looking to save money on his groceries, 6 or so younger idealistic types (one also named Rebecca, from Minnesota, who had moved to town 1 day before me), and a gay couple that had moved to Albany from NYC a few years prior. Oh, I eventually got labeled "Left Coast." Welcome back to the East Coast to me, ha.

The gay couple had some amazing stories about grocery co-ops in NYC. It sounded like they'd tried to join the Park Slope Co-op, but said that it was nearly impossible to figure out even how to get in for a tour, let alone how to join, so they'd joined a different co-op instead and supplemented that with a CSA subscription. A noted that the Park Slope Co-op shows up periodically in the New York Times.

Evidence: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/19/nyregion/metropolitan-diary-overheard-at-the-park-slope-food-co-op.html (omg please read this one)
https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/30/business/park-slope-food-coop-pension-fund-fight.html (with a link to additional NYT coverage of co-op matters)

There was also extensive discussion of some changes in terminology that have happened for Honest Weight over the years. Apparently around 16,000 people are "member-owners" of the co-op, which in its simplest form involves purchasing a $100 "Certificate of Ownership" (not a "share," ahem, because that word means something else from a legal standpoint). However, if a person wishes to wield decision-making power (i.e. have a voting membership), they must make a "time commitment" of at least 3 hours a month (this is neither "working" nor "volunteering"). If a person wishes to receive more extensive discounts, they must then make a further time commitment of three hours per week. For those with partners or shared households, where everyone shares food from the same fridge, each person is expected to become a member-owner, the total "time commitment" is three hours plus an additional hour per additional person, and this can be met by a combination of hours from each person or by one person meeting the full time commitment.

Over the course of this, we learned that at one point the Park Slope Co-op had to crack down on member-owners who were sending in their nannies to fulfill their time commitments on their behalf. Ahem, member-owners at that co-op must fulfill their time commitments themselves.

There have been interesting disagreements that have happened over the course of the co-op's history. Some of Honest Weight's history will be of especial interest to those who are familiar with the Gentle Strength Co-op's history in Arizona. But also compared to the models pursued by other grocery co-ops in other parts of the U.S.

So, back to the 70's and 80's. Lots of grocery co-ops got their start in that era, often by people who were inspired by reading Diet for a Small Planet. The same was true for Honest Weight: strong vegetarian leanings in the early days. Early grocery co-ops were often just big rooms, and people would basically band together to be able to purchase items in bulk for cheap and then distribute those items among themselves. So in the early days, Honest Weight basically offered vegetarian bulk dry goods, and occasional dairy products from a local dairy. Over time, they started to grow, and at some point they wound up relocating to a building owned by somebody who was sympathetic to the co-op's mission. This was an older building in a fairly central location, and it allowed the co-op to grow and expand in the space for a long time. But apparently it was very much lacking in parking space. When the building's owner eventually got tired of owning the building, they offered to sell to the co-op for a good price. But with the lack of parking space, the co-op members instead decided to purchase a chunk of land with a warehouse on it instead, so they did.

I'm a bit dodgy on some of the details at this point, but it sounds like there was a challenging period where they demolished the warehouse and then went into debt to construct the current co-op building of their dreams. So they're now in a phase where they are paying off all of that debt (more-or-less successfully, by the sound of it) and continuing to work to stay afloat and serve their membership and the broader community. While the current location provides a parking lot that can hold somewhere between 100 and 200 cars, it's apparently still not quite large enough to contain both the cars belonging to co-op shoppers and the cars belonging to member-owners who have arrived to put in their time commitments.

(I should note that the bike racks out in front of the building are quite nice and well-situated, and it's pretty easy to bike over there).

It sounds like in recent years Honest Weight wound up deciding that it is not interested in pursuing a "consumer model," which is more like what has happened for co-ops like REI. I suspect something similar may also have happened to PCC. I'm not sure where Open Harvest fits in (that's the co-op in Lincoln). Honest Weight has also struggled with shifts in the grocery distribution options, but is still managing to do a lot to bring in food from local producers in addition to bringing in many of the packaged/manufactured goods that some fraction of the members like. Hence why I could find products shipped all the way in from the west coast, which I have mixed feelings about. (I'm inclined to agree with our oral historian, though, that the heart of this co-op is in the bulk section and the produce section, and thank goodness for that.).

Anyway, I hope I am able to become an active member-owner. If so, it sounds like I will have future stories to tell about adventures with this interesting community of people.

And I haven't even mentioned the hilarious commentary about the throngs that flock in to take advantage of the senior discounts on Wednesdays. As A put it, people fighting their way out of their Mercedes-Benzes and Rolls-Royces to get in to the store and get those grocery bargains.

Nor have I mentioned how there have apparently been raging debates between the vegan faction and those who were interested in bringing in locally-produced meats and seafood.

Also interestingly, only residents of the state of New York can become member-owners. People who live in western Massachusetts cannot join - probably for legal reasons, if I had to guess. And while there are around 16,000 member-owners, there are only around 800 people who are eligible to vote in elections. There are also around 200 paid employees who work at the co-op, and there have been some interesting dynamics that have developed between the co-op's board and the people who have spearheaded co-op management over the years. Lots of room for interesting interpersonal things to rise up and swirl around, but at least in this case the co-op has continued to persist in spite of it all.

It made me think about Gentle Strength a lot, and how Gentle Strength wound up imploding after a similar, related series of cascading events (management vs. board dispute, questionable real estate decisions, etc). When I left Arizona, construction was well underway on the 10- or 20-story building that's replacing the old Gentle Strength site. The developers have named the building "The Local" and it will feature a Whole Amazon Foods on the ground floor, along with floors and floors of parking stalls.

This entry was originally posted at https://rebeccmeister.dreamwidth.org/1243894.html. Please comment there using OpenID.

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