Now, entering the '90s, co-op customers are focusing on the environment, recycled-paper products and minimal packaging while they shop for organic convenience foods and snacks.
What hasn't changed is the need for member commitment and support if a co- op is to survive.
In her 10 years as a member of the Weaver's Way Co-op in West Mount Airy, Valerie Cutler has grown to depend on the crowded corner market as the primary food source for herself and her husband. She considers the $20 annual fee and six hours of work per adult member each year a bargain.
"I feel confident that what they buy is more carefully monitored," said Cutler, of Germantown. "Last year, when everyone else was worried about (the pesticide) Alar, we knew our apples were certified as grown without Alar. The chicken sold here is raised without hormones.
"And now I can get recycled-paper goods here, too. About the only things I still buy at the supermarket are cleaning supplies and my favorite brand of yogurt."
Weaver's Way, the area's largest co-op with 2,350 member households, is one of the few co-ops open only to members and having a single price structure. Incorporated in 1974, it grew out of an older buying club formed at Summit Presbyterian Church. An annex store was added recently at 551 Carpenter Lane to stock recycled-paper products and natural pet foods.
As with most co-ops requiring one-time or annual share purchases, the Weaver's Way investment is refundable when members leave the association. The
financial commitment, however modest, gives members a vested interest in the organization. In manager Ed McGann's words: "Everybody's an owner here."
That's why, at Weaver's Way at least, shoppers are expected to weigh and price their own produce. They also are asked to supply bags. Every little bit helps to hold down costs.
As an example, these produce prices were noted last week at Weaver's Way: carrots, 29 cents a pound; bananas, 33 cents a pound; green peppers, 52 cents a pound; New Jersey tomatoes, 53 cents a pound; eggplant, 54 cents a pound; celery, 55 cents a stalk; avocados, 60 cents each; basil, 75 cents a 4-ounce bunch, and red peppers, 88 cents a pound. All of these prices are lower than most supermarket prices.
For staples like sugar and milk, and for some national brands, prices were on par with those of supermarkets.
Each co-op has its own policies and price structure, however.
The Selene Whole Foods Co-op in Media, for instance, has four pricing levels, with the highest prices for nonmembers and the lowest prices for members who work there 20 or more hours a month.
And at Center Foods, a natural-foods retailer in Center City, discounted prices are offered to members of the store's buying club.
Yet another form of cooperative food buying is represented by SHARE- Philadelphia, the local chapter of an international effort.
Members of SHARE (Self Help And Resource Exchange) pay $13 (cash or food stamps) early in the month. At the end of the month, when members' need for food aid is greatest, they receive a bag of groceries valued at $30 to $35 and containing 16 to 20 items, typically with four frozen meats and the rest fresh produce and staples. Members must register with a sponsor group and perform at least two hours of volunteer work each month for the host group or at the SHARE warehouse at 2901 W. Hunting Park Ave. There are no limits on income or food purchases.
Cooperative work arrangements are as old as humanity. During the Depression, economic need spawned a wave of consumer cooperatives, and one survivor from the period is the Consumer Cooperative Association of Swarthmore. Founded in 1937 as a buying club, the operation recently evolved into a member-owned community market.
"We almost went out of business a few years back," said manager Greg Byrnes, "but we're doing very well now. We carry hard-to-find items and gourmet items. We have a full-service meat counter and deli. We take coupons and food stamps, and give discounts on case lots."
At the height of cooperative activity in the inflation-plagued '70s, the list of food co-ops and buying clubs in and around Philadelphia exceeded 50. Groups formed at churches and Y's, at colleges and community centers, in basements and garages. There were even experienced co-op organizers available to help get groups started, plus local, state and national organizations to provide support and exchange information.
Many of those groups have folded under the weight of work required to run a successful food co-op. The surviving stores have prospered largely because members commit time and energy to the co-op. The surviving co-ops also tend to focus on whole and organic foods, meeting a need that until recently was ignored by most major food markets. Being open to members and the general public can broaden the customer base and bring in extra income.
As nonprofit corporations, some co-ops rebate the occasional surplus to members, but most find it easier to keep costs and income in balance by adjusting prices. Most now have paid staff in key jobs, but the hours of labor provided by member volunteers are crucial to a co-op's success.
Many co-op members are attracted by the availability of organic produce and organic meats and poultry, as well as more wholesome foods in general. Good selections are available at Ecology Food Co-op, Center Foods and Selene. Several, including Weaver's Way, Ecology and Selene, gross over $1 million a year in sales, yet still have member input in buying decisions and respond to specific product requests.
Surviving in the world of co-ops also means supplying products not readily available in other food markets and keeping prices competitive.
The usual guideline for co-op food purchases is that products contain no bleached white flour, no refined sugar, no caffeine and no chemical additives. Whenever possible, foods should be grown without chemical pesticides.
In Delaware, the Newark Community Cooperative has become that state's largest natural-foods store, with $1.4 million in annual sales. Founded as a buying club in 1969, the co-op now has over 1,000 member households. Members there make a one-time investment of $100 for 10 shares of the cooperative. There are no annual fees. Working members get the lowest prices, while non- working members pay 10 percent more. Nonmembers pay a 25 percent premium, but they still may find themselves paying less than retail prices for some items.
Manager Bob Kleszics credits the success of the Newark co-op and others to their organic orientation.
"The co-ops that survive are going to be the natural-food co-ops," said Kleszics. "We're in a college town, but we pull customers from the whole county. The store fills a niche. It doesn't look that much different from any natural-foods store."
FOR MORE INFORMATION
SHARE-Philadelphia, 2901 W. Hunting Park Ave., Philadelphia 19140. Information on host groups, which include churches, unions, tenant groups, call 215-223-2220.
Newark Community Cooperative, 280 E. Main St., Newark, Del. 19711, is open
from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., Monday through Saturday. For information, call 302-368-5894.