Co-opportunity: Co-ops thrive in East Liberty


East End Food Co-op is located on Meade St. and has more than 10,000 members who all own a share of the company. (Photo courtesy of Marissa Perino)

By Marissa Perino / Staff Writer

At a farmers market in East Liberty, customers flock to stands lined with red-capped apple cider jugs and stacked wooden crates filled with fresh fruits and vegetables to cross grocery shopping off their to-do list for the week.

In Pittsburgh’s East End neighborhood, two farmers market cooperatives — The Farmers’ Market Cooperative and East End Food Co-op — work to offer benefits to participating members and cater to their customers. The co-ops operate the same in food as they do in other businesses — members are owners who collectively share the organization.

The Farmers’ Market Cooperative is managed by four owners — Greenawalt Farms, J.L. Kennedy Meat Stand, Kistaco Farms and Zang’s Greenhouses. Individually, they are the co-op’s biggest vendors, and together they help manage the operation.

Miranda Combs of Kistaco Farms said the market sees a lot of recurring customers, which builds a connection with the community and positively affects the environment.

“Coming to any kind of farmers market gives customers the opportunity to actually talk to the growers, talk to the people who are producing what they’re eating,” Combs said. “It helps people understand where their food is coming from.”

This food comes in a wide variety, from locally-sourced dairy products to baked goods. While the co-op is only owned by four people, approximately a dozen vendors offer food each Saturday, bringing donuts, coffee and even homemade Indian food.

Pittsburgh-area farmers first organized the Farmers’ Market Cooperative of East Liberty in 1941. The original stands chose to open at dawn to cater to mill workers and bus drivers ending their shifts. The co-op upholds the tradition today — it’s open once a week from 5 a.m. to noon all year.

Combs is now a third generation co-op participant, following her father and grandmother’s initiative to bring their farm’s produce to the city marketplace. The co-op has allowed the family farm to sell their apples year-round as cider, since most markets close in September or October.

Along with regular neighborhood members, restaurant owners also dig through the fresh finds, such as the owner of Legume Bistro in Oakland, according to the market’s website.

East End Food Co-op carries a variety of products from canned goods and produce to a juice, coffee, and smoothie bar. (Photo by Marissa Perino)

“We’re always looking for new customers,” said Combs. “The traditional customers watched me grow up … so it’s about how we can reach out to those around us. I know East Liberty is growing right now, so that’s kind of the next big thing at least in my perspective.”

East Liberty has experienced a boom in business since 2010, including the expansion and operation of the East End Food Co-op.

EEFC started as the East End Buyers’ Club in the 1970s. Following the close of the Semple Street Food Co-op in Oakland, EEFC acquired their business and moved into the abandoned factory building of the Pittsburgh Electric Coil and oversaw a company expansion in the early 2000s.

In contrast to Farmers’ Market Co-op’s mere four owners, EEFC has more than 10,000 members who all own a share of the company. They get to vote on who runs the store as well as products that are stocked.

Kris Osterwood, a regular customer and Pitt alumna, said the store is a healthy alternative to traditional grocery stores and is in a convenient location.

“Proximity-wise, it’s perfect,” she said. “I like the options, and the smoothies are fantastic.”

EEFC — open every day from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. — is set up more like a traditional storefront, as opposed to the Farmers’ Market’s country general feel. It features a juice, coffee and smoothie bar, along with its regular products like produce and canned goods.

The co-op is also in the process of board reelection, and is continuing to add lectures, sales and group activities to its calendar.

Regardless of their different origins, both co-ops serve as prime examples of local substitutes for mass market food shopping. Across the country, this push for all-natural, organic and vegan options have helped to reinstate the popularity of food markets from the mid 1900s.  

“The co-op is definitely benefitting the farmers that are owners, but it also allows us to still run the business ourselves,” said Combs. “We have a little more autonomy than if we were selling through a grocery store.”

Emily Shepard, an employee at EEFC of six months, said that she “fell in love” with the organic, fair trade options the store offered when she moved to Pittsburgh.

“You have a voice,” Shepard said, “As a worker here and a member who shops here, which is a big deal.”