[Since its initial publication on Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood, this piece has unleashed a firestorm of debate so fierce, and so utterly acrimonious, that it is easily the most controversial piece in the history of this website. Of the many responses that we received, the two that we are legally permitted to publish are by Erica Weitzman and Dina. –Ed.]
I sat amongst the group and nervously awaited my turn. I was supposed to share with the thirty people in the room my purpose for being at this orientation meeting. Exactly why was I interested in joining the Park Slope Food Coop. It was getting increasingly harder as we went from person to person, to come up with something original. How many reasons could there really be for wanting to participate in this type of arrangement–work in exchange for shopping privileges at the largest food coop organization in the United States.
Most of the reasons were what you’d expect. “I just moved to Park Slope and I’m a Vegan. I’m just not satisfied with the selection of food at the local groceries.”
“I’m tired of paying so much money for organic produce at the Korean grocers.”
“I’m new to the area and looking to meet like-minded people who are interested in eating healthy.”
The problem was, I wasn’t sure I wanted to join. I was here out of curiosity. The idea of superior quality food at cheaper prices was appealing. My problem was that I didn’t want to sacrifice the one key commodity that was in such short supply–-time. Putting it simply, I didn’t want to work.
But why was I really here? Why now? The main reason wasn’t one I wanted to share with the 25-35 year-olds that predominated in this orientation group. It had to do with aging and starting to feel it. I didn’t really think that the young couples, roommates, college and graduate students in the room wanted to hear how my 47-year-old body was developing aches that were lasting progressively longer; how I had been recently diagnosed with arthritis in my hip that, based on what my health guru told me, I could reverse with a diet consisting of natural grains, organic produce, and eating raw. But the whole situation just wasn’t fair. My body was giving out on me. I didn’t want to eat healthy. It wasn’t fun. My inner child was having a shoving contest with my adult self. I was in a mid-life health crisis and I wasn’t pleased.
I remembered when I first moved to The Slope in 1981. I was twenty-one. There was a waiting list for the then-smaller food coop and I put my name at the end of it and waited for a call. A couple of years later, when they finally contacted me, I had changed my mind. I was living alone and didn’t think I could eat enough to make it worth the work effort.
Now, here I was contemplating healthy eating options and measuring the expense of shopping outside the coop. For the $25.00 joining fee, and the $100.00 investment in the coop which would be refunded upon termination, one could be expected to save from 20-40% of their average grocery bill. By buying directly from the farmers, the Food Coop worked at a lower mark-up compared to regular groceries so prices were significantly cheaper. Organic produce was much fresher than what you’d find in the supermarkets. The argument for joining was compelling.
The leader of our group, Sky, whose chosen “work shift” was to head this orientation meeting, turned to me and smiled showing her perfectly aligned, white teeth straight out of an advertisement for Tom’s Natural Tooth Paste. She was the ideal person to lead potential newcomers to the promised land of wholesome food shopping. Her skin shone. Her hair radiated light, in a halo around her head. “And how about you?” she asked encouragingly. “Tell us your name and why you want to join.” “My name is Fran and it’s been twenty four years since I’ve considered eating organic,” I said nervously. She looked at me quizzically but still mustered that unflinching smile. “I reached the point where I wanted to check into an alternative to the local supermarkets,” I added. She nodded her approval. Oh yes, she had heard all this before. We all were about to be enlightened. She explained that there were approximately 13,000 members comprising this member-owned and -operated food coop established in 1973. After the slide show and question and answer period, we would be given a tour of the facility along with one free pass to shop at the coop, in order to experience first hand the limitless bounty of healthy food options.
Sky then got into the hardest sell of the night: the work shifts. Everyone was required to work a 2 3/4 hour shift every 4 weeks without fail. One could sign up for the hours they were available to work and the type of shift they preferred. I was leaning towards something not involving people. I would be happy to mindlessly stock shelves for the allotted time as long as it didn’t require interaction with fellow Park Slopers. They were a demanding bunch by nature and I wasn’t up to the challenge.
But then the glow in Sky’s face suddenly darkened and her upbeat voice took on a serious tone. “I have to mention here that we have rules about working. Any family member over the age of 18 who is employed, is required to work if they intend to eat the food from the coop,” she said.
I thought this was odd. How were they going to monitor this? Were they going to scrutinize the food one had in their cart before giving clearance to buy it? I had heard about their strict regulations that had earned them the title “Food Nazis.” Stories circulated around the neighborhood about members who would turn in close friends who attempted to sneak in and shop without joining.
A friend of mine, making use of her free pass to shop, told me of a harrowing experience she encountered while waiting on line to purchase a variety of vegetarian foods: Tofurkey Jerky that tasted like the beef variety but wasn’t, Quinoa, spelt, and tempeh, and then a number of organic steaks for her live-in boyfriend who was a meat and potatoes kind of guy. Her upper lip beaded with sweat as she stood on line, worried that the mix of items in her cart gave her away–-she was committing a flagrant food coop offense, shopping for a non-worker. She somehow managed to get out with the goods thanks to an inexperienced worker acting as cashier, but confessed that it wasn’t worth the stress.
There were strict regulations about those who committed crimes against the coop such as missing shifts without notification that could result in suspension. Those who were banished from the coop had to redeem themselves before being allowed back in. This usually consisted of working the missed shifts and remaining on this blacklist until they proved that they would reform their negligent ways.
Another friend of mine who had been given the boot for missing too many shifts decided to rejoin under an alias starting anew with a clean record. It worked for a while until he was outed by a fellow worker who realized something was up when he failed to react to them paging him by his new name, over the store speaker system.
Finding the time with my busy work schedule was one small issue that weighed in on the “con” side as I tried to decide whether or not to join. But the real deterrent for me was that I didn’t feel I’d fit in. Each time I happened to walk past the food coop, I couldn’t help but notice the distinctive overall look of people I saw shopping there. Sure I was generalizing but it appeared that in order to fit in, I’d have to stop shaving my legs and underarms, forget about dyeing my hair, get rid of the makeup and maybe consider purchasing a pair of Birkenstock sandals. I didn’t have organic-fruit-and-vegetable-eating children whose idea of a snack was home-made applesauce without sugar. I occasionally ate Ring Dings.
I tried to keep these thoughts at bay as we began our tour of the facility. I followed the group down the stairs to the main floor where a flurry of shoppers jockeyed through the few crowded black metal shelves that formed the aisles with their smaller than normal carts. It was a no frills kind of place with exposed brick and dingy red flooring. The distinct smell of fresh curry, cinnamon and other spices, mingled with the leafy green vegetable odors from the produce section which filled another small adjoining room.
Loitering near the snack section comprised of a variety of organic chips, gluten-free, wheat-free cookies and sugarless treats, I cringed as I overheard a mother telling her young daughter, “No, leave the carob bars for later. I made a nice Seitan Stew for dinner. You don’t want you to spoil your appetite.” Satan’s Stew? This had all the makings of a natural, whole-grains-eating cult. It gave me the creeps.
I caught up with the group in the basement where Sky was showing how workers prepared the cheeses and spices to be put out on the shelves. She played a little game with us to see if we could guess the price of the little bag of spice she held in her hand.
“How much for this cumin?” she asked.
“$3.50,” someone from group called out.
“$.75,” she laughed delightedly after all the oohs and aahs. She was having great fun.
She held up some others but stopped when I called out a price that was lower than the price marked.
After the tour, I walked past the line of people anxiously waiting to sign up. I still was undecided. I wanted to be accepted in spite of my bad attitude and differences. But once inside, would I be able to withstand the pressure? Would I suddenly see with newfound clarity, the horrors of eating a T-Bone steak or the evils of white flour? Maybe my health depended on it. I made my way home, but stopped in the local Haagen Daaz for a scoop of my favorite Chocolate Chocolate Chip ice cream, in spite of what I had been warned about dairy. I just wasn’t feeling wholesome enough to make the commitment. Maybe in another twenty years.