These days, there is no shortage of natural food stores, and even large grocery stores are increasingly carrying a variety of healthier and organic foods. But a food co-op? That’s a little different.
“A co-op is a community-owned business,” explains Lisa Burton, general manager of Spring Valley’s Hungry Hollow Co-op. “Each person who becomes an owner-member puts the same amount of equity into the co-op. No one person ever has more leverage or more investment — or more loss, for that matter. It’s an even playing field.”
That investment — a one-time payment of $100 at Hungry Hollow Co-op — allows patrons to literally become owners of the store, electing a board of directors who, in turn, hire store management to run day-to-day operations.
But cooperative ownership is not the only thing that makes co-ops like Hungry Hollow, which is celebrating its 50th year, unique places to shop.
“We have deep roots in organic,” says Burton, detailing the co-op’s origins as a “buying club” for parents associated with the nearby Green Meadow Waldorf School. That focus has only expanded in recent years.
In addition to selling a selection of high-quality produce, co-ops often support mom-and-pop shops, and many offer a diverse bulk section, sell prepared foods, operate juice and smoothie bars, supply craft brews, cater to allergy-friendly products, and a lot more. According to the International Cooperative Alliance, food co-ops source about 20% of their products locally, compared to 6% for conventional grocery stores.
Even in the more seasonal northeast, Hungry Hollow is able to bring in a lot of food from nearby. Burton explains that they source milk and yogurt, along with organic and biodynamic produce and plant seedlings, from the Threefold Community Farm in Chestnut Ridge, less than a mile from the co-op.
They also get sprouts from Perfect Foods in Goshen, produce from both Hepworth Farm in Milton and Row by Row Farm in Hurley, bread and baked goods from Balthazar Bakery, and organic and biodynamic breads and fermented foods from Hawthorne Valley Farm in Ghent. Their bulk dry beans, grains, and flours are also from New York.
Despite the benefits of membership, you need not be a member to shop at many co-ops. Burton stresses that they are open to the public, and they do accept EBT (Electronic Benefit Transfer). But if you become a member-owner of a co-op, you get additional benefits, including hefty discounts.
“There is a different level of investment into the community in a community-owned business,” says Burton. “It’s literally our store.”
“We’re not operating under the instruction of a corporate headquarters in who knows where,” she adds. “All of the decisions we make are in response to our immediate community — and with the input of our immediate community and the people who work here, who feel the impact of all those decisions and are actually part of the decision-making process.”
Will Solomon has written about the Hudson Valley for The Times Union, Chronogram, and other publications. Find him online: @wsolol.