Philadelphia’s food co-ops reflect the city’s diverse neighborhoods

Food co-ops no longer look all the same. Gone are the days when these neighborhood-based buying-clubs shared a church basement or a shoe-box sized storefront. On a recent bus-tour of three Philadelphia-area food co-ops, Chester, Swartmore, and Mariposa (West Philly), it became apparent that the food co-op business model can be adapted to serve an inner-city food desert or to take on Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s in the highly competitive affluent suburbs. 

Weavers Way food co-op offered the tour on Thursday to its visiting delegates to this year’s national Consumer Cooperative Management Association Conference in Philadelphia. Here is a brief description of the three co-ops we visited.

Chester Co-op, 512 Avenue of the States.

Chester City, Southwest of Philadelphia, is considered under-served by the major grocery chains. A low-income community that is dotted with corner grocery stores that often don’t sell fresh produce. The Chester Co-op opened one year ago and has 700 members, two-thirds of them are African-America in a city that is 95 percent black. Tina Johnson, General Manager of the Chester Co-op says there is tremendous need for her store. “One third of the population doesn’t have access to cars,” she said, “We have five senior housing units around here.” Anyone can shop at the co-op, but its member receive a discount.

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Karen Palmer, who helped organize the co-op tour, says she hopes people can see the diversity of co-op models. Palmer is spearheading the effort to open a food co-op in Ambler, Pa. She pointed out that like many co-ops, Chester has a work requirement (volunteering at the store) but there are other ways to fulfill this. “Whatever you do that benefits the community counts as your work,” Palmer said. 

Swarthmore Co-op, 341 Dartmouth Ave.

Swarthmore is a wealthy suburb of Philadelphia that has no shortage of high-end grocery stores. It is also home to prestigious Swarthmore college. We sell a lot of sushi, especially when the college students are in town,” said Marc BrownGold, the general manager of the Swarthmore Co-op. What stands out about this co-op is that you might think it’s another high-end grocery store that could go head-to-head with Trader Joe’s or Wegman’s. “I like to think that we are primary market,” BrownGold said. “To me it’s the future. These small markets are the future. I see these big markets closing. People walk into these big markets and I think they are overwhelmed by the experience,” he said. “They shop here because they trust what we put on the shelves.” 

Mariposa Co-op, 4824 Baltimore Ave.

Situated in an racially mixed inner-city neighborhood in West Philadelphia Mariposa is housed in a former bank building that still has two vaults. Bull “Eric” Gervasi, the produce and facilities manager at Mariposa Co-op, says one vault is used for overstock. The new building has allowed the co-op to expand its offering, especially in its produce department. It has also been boon for its membership, according to Gervasi. “We had about 700 members in 2011 and we’ve about doubled that.” Mariposa attracts customers from both the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University areas and the lower-income areas in West Philly.  

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