Monday, January 1, 2007

Where are Boston's food co-ops?

According to, a treasure trove for finding organic and local food sources, only three food co-ops exist within Route 128—Harvest Co-op Markets in Jamaica Plain and Cambridge, and Good Health Natural Foods, Inc. in Quincy. Other northern cities such as St. Paul and Minneapolis or Seattle are home to 8 or 9 co-ops each. What is it about Boston that has hindered co-op development? Could it be a lack of appreciation among Bostonians for organic and local food? A reluctance to join? Competition from establishment stores such as Whole Foods? And why has Harvest Co-op, founded in the early seventies, survived?

Co-op markets became popular in the seventies when, seeking organic and local food that mainstream grocery stores rarely carried, customers banded together to create an alternative. Members enjoy relatively low prices through the co-op’s bulk purchase of high quality foodstuffs, and they also have a say in what products the store stocks. “Neighborhood people are our base,” says Chris Durkin, Director of Membership and Community Relations. Customers tend to be well-educated and affluent—as Durkin puts it, “There’s a knowledge and awareness.”

Harvest’s two branches started separately. Students at Boston University created a pre-order co-op, which later moved to Allston and finally, in 1998, to JP. The Cambridge store was founded by community activists with a Federal Model City Grant in 1975. When it nearly went bankrupt in 1992 following the move to its current location in Central Square, the Allston Store offered to help, and subsequently they joined for good.

Both co-op sites are among, in Durkin’s words, “diverse, very inclusive neighborhoods that are more accepting.” Small independent stores and corporate outlets such as the Gap coexist with Harvest along Mass Ave in Central Square, where the pace of change has recently accelerated. Nearby old factory buildings now house biotech companies, bringing an infusion of wealth to the traditionally working-class neighborhood. In JP, the co-op is a stone’s throw from trendy Centre Street, yet it also borders the mostly Hispanic, lower-income end of South Street. Indeed, many of the co-op’s workers speak Spanish to one another.

Nowadays, Harvest’s General Manager Mike St. Clair thinks the business climate is more challenging. “Big chains are figuring out natural and organic,” he says. Besides competition, the cost of startup is formidable. He estimates it would now cost 3-5 million dollars to start an urban co-op from scratch.

Until recently, big chains focused on suburban markets, where costs were cheap and demand high. “Co-ops went into places where regular companies didn’t think they could make money,” says St. Clair, which is why some rural areas, as well as cities, are strongholds for co-ops.

A major catalyst for the growth of organic and natural foods was a 60 Minutes episode on the 1989 Alar apple scare, named for a carcinogen used by farmers to ripen apples simultaneously. The demand for organic food, and with it, co-ops, has risen steadily ever since, pushed by subsequent alarm over Mad Cow Disease and contaminated milk. Ironically, the recent E. Coli spinach scare shows that organic food is quite susceptible to contamination, and it is virtually impossible to save apples from worms unless chemical pesticides are used.

Nonetheless, the organic industry is now worth well over 10 billion dollars, and mainstream supermarkets, most notably Whole Foods but also Wal-Mart, have smelled profit. Whereas in the early nineties natural food stores sold over two-thirds of all organic products and supermarkets less a tenth, supermarkets now sell by far the greater share.

Harvest Co-ops now have an even greater incentive to emphasize the quality and local nature of their products. “We count on the community coming in and shopping,” says Durkin. That the co-ops stock Coke and Pepsi may seem surprising, but Durkin says, “We don’t dictate what people should buy… Education is on top of everything.” On the other hand, Harvest’s selection of spices and bulk foods is truly distinctive; while these items aren’t particularly profitable, they are popular with customers. And in a nod to influx of professionals in East Cambridge, the co-op stocks a wide variety of microbrews.

St. Clair expanded upon how the Harvest aspires to serve the local community. “Our profits go back to the community.” Regarding local vendors, “We can turn on a dime.” Whereas it would take a big chain several months to integrate a local farm’s products into its supply chain, if indeed it was willing to at all, Harvest can get a novel product such as Water Buffalo Yogurt onto its shelves in under a week after a deal. Besides, Harvest allows locals such as Red Fire Farm, of Granby, Massachusetts, to run CSAs out of its parking lot. “We know it takes business away from us,” says St. Clair. “We accept that.”

Other co-ops have not been as agile. Gloucester’s Cape Ann Food Co-op succumbed last year, leaving the North Shore without a co-op.

Certainly Bostonians have an affinity for local products. The cluster of farmers markets in the metro area—20 to 25, depending on how one defines the metro area—rivals that of any major American city. Rachel Travers examined the popularity of gourmet food stores with a natural twist, especially in affluent suburbs, in the Winter issue of Edible Boston.

Bostonians were actually quite hospitable to the sustainable food movement in its early days. Distribution followed a different model here than in other towns. Bread & Circus, so named because it sold wooden toys along with culinary items, was founded in Brighton in 1975 and quickly won a loyal following. Subsequent stores opened in Cambridge, Wellesley, and Newton, with farther flung outposts in Hadley and Providence.

Durkin speculates that Bread and Circus diminished the demand for co-ops. In other cities, he says, “people were more used to working together for things.” In Boston, St. Clair adds, “People aren’t aware what co-ops are.”

Whole Foods bought Bread and Circus in 1992, and it has since expanded the chain to 15 stores in the Boston metro area, with three in Cambridge alone, one of which is only a couple hundred yards away from Harvest. Soon, another will appear in Dedham—the company is trying hard to make inroads in suburbia. Prospect Street, however, is a relatively small stores, roughly similar in layout to the nearby Harvest Co-op. The employees with whom I spoke were genuinely upbeat about their jobs, giving their employer high praise. But they declined my request to quote them for this article, instead, referring me to Bill McGowan, Senior Produce Coordinator for the company.

McGowan affirmed that Whole Foods allows its stores some autonomy, indeed, that “part of the mission is to help grow the local offering… We set up a relationship with a farm in advance—when the season comes, they’ll come to us [with the product].” McGowan could not, however, estimate what percentage of Whole Food’s products is local. A glance at product labels around the store shows that the vast majority arrive via the regional distribution center in Cheshire, Connecticut. Regarding competition, McGowan shies away from generalization. “We try to keep ourselves differentiated by offering more organic items,” he says. That contrast, of course, is with conventional grocers, rather than co-ops, which are now emphasizing the local nature of their products to separate themselves from Whole Foods.

Of Whole Foods, St. Clair speaks unequivocally. “They’re big, corporate, and vicious. But every day they go further corporate, we differentiate ourselves from them. There’s a benefit for us.”

Thus far, however, while Harvest may be holding its own, Whole Foods is growing steadily. In the end, Boston’s preference for established supermarkets probably speaks most to the city’s comfort with the establishment.


Eliot said...

You see this?

When did you become a professional writer by the way. nicely done.

I'll be out in b-town some time this month. Wanna grab a pint?

osei may said...

Where are they?
I just took out a book from the library called" Food Coops: An Alternative to Shopping in Supermarkets" by Willaim Ronco, dated 1974. Thumbing through the material was quite interesting. I noted that there were many food cooperatives in the local Boston area that I can't find today such as
(1) Broadway Food Co-op in Somerville
(2) NE Food Cooperative Organization better known as NEFCO
(3) Boston Food Coop
(4) Mission Hill Food Coop

This search brought me to your article. I live in JP and I'm familiar with Harvest but not its history. I grew up Brooklyn, NY and my parents have been members of the successful Park Slope Food Coop for over thirty years. I been going there since I can remember and have fond memories.

In regards to Boston, I can't understand how several food co-ops presumably disappeared. Do you know anything about these other food cooperative or how they just shrunk. In the past 20 years. Are supermarkets getting that good? Also I notice that in the book the food-cooperative members were also workers, a concept in practice in the Park Slope Food Coop. I believe that Harvest Food Coops used to do that in their earlier history but now they don't.

Great dicussion. I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

Anonymous said...

"Ironically, the recent E. Coli spinach scare shows that organic food is quite susceptible to contamination, and it is virtually impossible to save apples from worms unless chemical pesticides are used."

This is wrong. Please do not invent "facts" that do not exist. Yes you will get mass farmers say that they can't grow apples organically. They are wrong. Old frog pond farm in harvard mass has been growing organic apples for years as a pick-your-own and they don't have "worms." They sell their crop to those who know and can get there, otherwise people buy organic apples at whole foods and other places which were grown out of state.

How you equate this with e coli spinach contamination is a mystery. There is no connection except in your mind. What are you trying to say here? That organic growing can have problems? That you can't really have organic?

Please stick to what you know and can explain.

Andrew Riely said...

E. coli contaminated the organic spinach, which shows that organic crops, for all their merits, are vulnerable to pests and germs. Whole apples are among the most difficult crops to grow without spray because consumers are so finicky about the slightest wormhole. Since it is so much more humid in the east than the west, pests and germs are far more active here, making it very difficult on large scale organic apple producers. Niche exceptions such as Old Frog Pond Farm survive in part because they sell to a market that has different standards of taste and appearance than the average American consumer.

Keep your tone civil or I won't publish any more of your comments, anonymous.