Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Are these groceries worth 6 bucks?

Logan Square, which borders my neighborhood to the east, now boasts a food co-op. Given my growing commitment to supporting local food systems, I was excited to check out the The Dill Pickle Food Cooperative. For those who don't know, a cooperative grocery store is, as the website states, "an independent, democratic organization that is owned, operated and financed by its members". My friends who live in Hanover, New Hampshire get to shop at their amazing local cooperative grocery store. That place is established and huge, and prices are reasonable, although nowhere close to the prices of factory-farm-supplied national grocers. I knew whatever I found on this stretch of Fullerton Ave was not going to be anywhere close to the Hanover emporium. But I had high hopes! The website thrilled me:

The Dill Pickle is a cooperatively owned and governed neighborhood grocery store that aims to provide sustainable, local, and organic goods at an affordable price in Chicago’ Logan Square neighborhood.

I visited on the first weekend it opened. It was a soft opening and clearly there were kinks that had not been worked out (the line was painfully long). I was not overwhelmed by the selection or the prices. I left disappointed (and empty handed because of that line), but open minded. I needed to go back when things were less hectic, when I could poke around, talk to the staff. I got off work early today, and returned to the co-op.

I really, really wanted to like the store. I am, however, still uncertain if the co-op even comes close to living up to its thrilling mission statement. "Local" and "affordable" are probably the most dubious claims at this point. In the produce area, I saw "local" on exactly three things: mushrooms, apples and shallots. A majority of the shelf real estate was dedicated to organic packaged foods, most of them national brands. I didn't see any local claims on the bulk bins.

Now, on to the affordability issue. The produce prices are farmer's market prices. To my (middle-class) eye, they are not unreasonable, but certainly not a bargain. The prices wouldn't make regular Whole Foods shoppers blink. But, "farmer's market prices" echoes the ongoing issues facing local food systems in poor neighborhoods. Even though Logan Square is gentrifying, most folks who live nearby (especially to the west), aren't going to pay a dollar for a single onion when they can get a 3 pound bag for 99 cents at Cermak Grocery. Now, here is where everyone chimes in about the taste and health-giving benefits of high-quality organic food, but I for one am not prepared to say that these prices are affordable to a family of six living on minimum wage. So is this a neighborhood grocery store, or a convenient pseudo-Whole-Foods-outpost for the higher-income folks that live in the vicinity? Even more egregious to me was the mark-up on processed and prepared foods. For example, a local yogurt brand was priced two dollars above the price at Stanley's, a nearby produce market. I simply don't understand this differential in profit-margin.

Finally, we need to discuss the chicken: the small, frozen, cut-up twenty-two dollar chicken, that the co-op was selling. I have been thinking a lot lately about the premium price commanded by local, organic meats. I'm beginning to wonder if the emperor has no clothes. I am willing to pay more for higher quality. I understand that small farms can't match the volume of factory-like farms, and need to build in a larger profit margin. But is the meat really worth four times as much? Along these lines, I found this blog post very provocative, as well as the impassioned discussion in response to it. It basically questions some of the profit-margins expected by local farmers, and challenges the extraordinarily higher prices of locally-raised meat. I'm not sure where I fall on this issue yet, but a wisp of doubt has begun to creep in. I still feel that the best available value for local meat is a CSA, if you can keep up with the amount of meat you get. I guess my mistake was in thinking that the co-op would act somewhat like a CSA, and that by collective purchasing, we would get CSA, not retail, prices.

So, the activist in me is shouting, "Become a member of the co-op! Voice your opinion! Vote to change the price on that yogurt bottle!". Membership costs 250, that can be stretched to 50 bucks a year over 5 years*. 50 dollars a year! Two chickens! There are some member discounts and no fixed work requirement, but the main return is the warm glow of investing in this well-intentioned start-up and a vote at the table*. I am torn. I support it in theory, but the reality is scaring me off. I'd rather spend that 250 bucks at the farmer's market, direct to the farmer, or on seeds to grow my own local produce. I wonder whether I should finance a store catering to hipsters that buy twelve dollar organic vanilla extract. But if more folks like me joined, maybe we could change that. Is this where I want to put my energy?

*Corrected info, thanks to comments!


  1. pretty interesting stuff...I live in VT, land of many member coops, but ALL of the same issues you've described. Your true get rich quick scheme is to be the local supplier that they're missing - grow winter greens! From where I'm sitting: good meat is for rich people and special occasions, and bad meat is for those who are making believe. No meat is what I'm left with, and it's not really my choice, it's just the only option that makes sense. We have layer hens - $17 of organic mash feeds six for one month, and that's 15 dozen eggs!

  2. Stanley's sells products that are almost at their expiration date. They get great discounts on huge bulks purchases because they are willing to take things much later than other grocery stores. You've probably also noticed that Stanley's produce rots if you leave it in your crisper for a couple days (you sometimes even see mold on produce still on the shelf). They can afford to charge less for their goods because their standards (and their shoppers' standards) are so much lower.

  3. "Membership costs 50 dollars a year!"

    Not quite correct. Membership is $250, and you may choose to pay it off over 5 years.

    "There are no member discounts, no work-requirements"

    Again, incorrect. There was a 10% discount for members during the opening weekend, and there will be members-only specials on particular products. While there is no work requirement, there is a program which rewards members who help out at the store with a 12% discount on purchases up to $100. Members are also entitled to a patronage rebate if/when the store turns a profit.

    Did you speak with the store's staff about your concerns?

  4. We are very fortunate to have an honest-to-goodness food co-op in our little town. I find that the prices are not only comparable to the chain-grocers we have here, but that often times they are CHEAPER! AND the quality of the produce is always better. They do a very good job of letting you know where everything comes from and how it is produced, too. I am a member and recently have made a commitment to myself to purchase as much of my household products from them as I can -- if they get the business, it will ensure their success and perhaps they can expand :)

    Your store sounds like it takes advantage of the co-op minded and is not true to the co-op spirit. I would talk to those currently elected to find out where they are coming from and what their plans for the future are. OR you could just stage a coup:). Either way -- Good luck!