How a New Zealand Apple Inspired Me to Confront My Fear of Co-ops
submitted by Equal Exchange
By Deb Layne, Oregon
Reading the article 5 Ways P6 Can Help YOU Change the Food System got me thinking about my reluctance to join a co-op. The truth is, as much as I hate to admit this, I have a fear of co-ops. It is a Middle School-level, I Might Do Something Embarrassing/What If Everyone Else There is Cooler Than Me fear. All you lifelong coop-ers are probably thinking that sounds ridiculous, so let me try to explain.
In the early 1980s I was a student at The Ohio State University in Columbus. I am from a working class, rural Ohio town which was full of greenhouses. I knew farm families growing up. But I’d never heard of a food co-op. I met some women in my Women’s History classes who raved about how great the co-ops were. They said you could get great food, at great prices and it was all, like, fresh and in bulk, and totally natural and you only had to work five or six times during the week.. These women wore long gauze skirts and tank tops all year around. And they all smelled of patchouli oil. Apparently co-ops sold patchouli oil. Lots and lots of patchouli oil.
I was tempted, but I never went. I spent much of my time in college feeling like I wasn’t as sophisticated or worldly as anyone else in Columbus (yeah, Columbus, go ahead and laugh). The co-op sounded like a place where people would be quoting avant garde literature and playing experimental hippie music and when I walked in, they’d see me in all my unsophisticated awkwardness and die laughing. I just couldn’t do it.
To make matters worse, I couldn’t even imagine what wild exotic foods they might sell. I mean, kale, chard, granola in bulk, miso, tofu? This Alabama-born soul food-eating Ohio transplant knew not of such things. The farm families back home grew soybeans, sure, but they didn’t eat them. There was a very practical concern here. What if I went off to the co-op and spent my week’s grocery money and then couldn’t figure out what to do with the stuff?
Years passed, I moved around some, and I would sometimes think about joining a coop, but that old college apprehension would keep me away. Then in the early Aughties, I met a cool co-op guy -- Barth Anderson, who, at that time, worked at the Wedge Co-op in Minneapolis and now blogs at Equal Exchange Co-op's Fair Food Fight. I met him through his fiction, but soon learned of his day life as a foodie. He knew all about produce and food politics. I started asking him questions about how to move toward better buying and eating habits for my family. He made co-ops sound so friendly and accessible. I thought about giving it a try, but I live in a far suburb of Portland and it would be genuinely inconvenient, or so I thought.
So, I started buying more organics at my local grocery store (which I chose because it has a union and that’s important to me). The day after I read that P6 article, I happened to be in that grocery store. Usually I have a grocery list which has an item “Produce.” I stroll through the rather small organic section and pick up what I think we will eat and if there’s something I really want that isn’t available in organic, I will often buy conventional. An imperfect system, but it’s what I can do. On this particular day, I wanted apples. They had organic Galas and Fujis. I picked up the Gala and looked at the little product code sticker and read: “Gala: New Zealand.” New Zealand? Really? New Zealand? This apple, organic though it was, had traveled all the way from New Zealand? No wonder it was so expensive. Conventional apples topped the 2011 Dirty Dozen list. That is no kind of choice to have to make. I did not buy apples that day.
Back home, I told my husband this story. I said maybe it was time to see if there was a coop that we could fit into our schedule and budget. He agreed. He was pretty astounded by the New Zealand apple, too. Thus followed the Googling. I learned that there was one co-op in the Southwest quadrant of Portland which was fifteen miles from us, but in an area I was fairly familiar with and could imagine driving to once each week. Since this store also allows non-members to shop (I honestly don’t know if that is now standard operating procedure), I plan to spend a month to six weeks trying it out at which time we will decide whether to join up.
My goal is to find a way to work co-op shopping into our lives. This is going to require me to learn how to plan meals and shop more effectively. Meal planning is not my best skill. Expense is going to be as much a factor as overall convenience. We’re lucky. My husband is still employed in his chosen profession (engineering), although he has taken some major salary hits over the past four or five years. I have tried to find a job, but Oregon’s unemployment rate is very high (over ten percent) and I’ve had no luck. We need to stick to a budget. But we like food and would like to get better food for what we spend.
I’d like to share my co-op experiment here on P^ and Fair Food Fight in case there are any readers lurking out there who might not think they can make the switch either. You may not have my neurotic issues, but if there’s something keeping you away, maybe we can work through it here.
Deb Layne is a writer in the Portland, Oregon area. She is publisher of the critically acclaimed Wheatland Press.