Food co-ops offer local option, opportunities for students

By Emma Kilcup

When Christopher Leiden and John McElhattan cook, they don’t make microwavable mac and cheese,… When Christopher Leiden and John McElhattan cook, they don’t make microwavable mac and cheese, leftover pizza or any of the usual college staples.

Instead, they make homemade meals with ingredients that appease their sustainable consciences. The Pitt juniors agree that the best place to find their cooking ingredients is at a food co-op — essentially a grocery store that’s owned and operated by its shareholders and offers local, organic products and produce.

Pittsburgh has only one established co-op: the East End Food Co-op. It’s located in the Point Breeze neighborhood, hidden beneath a rock-climbing gym. A welcoming sign outside lures customers with veggie frittatas and vegan french toast served at  the corner cafe every weekend for brunch.

The market is not huge, but it is full. Colorful produce lines the wall that leads to the variety of bulk granola: raspberry, chocolate, maple nut. The center is packed with organic products, from local honey to fair-trade coffees.

The co-op has been around for 35 years and is part of the National Cooperative Business Association. The association connects co-ops throughout the country so they can develop partnerships, share produce suppliers and leverage buying power. There are about 120 working together now. Although each one has a different system, EEFC General Manager Rob Baran explained that all co-ops operate with a nine-person Board of Directors and an elected general manager.

Baran has been the East End Food Co-op’s general manager for six years now. He emphasized the cooperative aspect of the store: It is a community that participates in philanthropic efforts and represents an alternative to large corporation grocery stores. The store does not just donate money — it tries to be involved. Baran talked about a redevelopment project he’d just gotten involved in.

“It’s different for everybody — they all have reasons to shop at a food co-op. For some, it’s that we’re community-owned. For others, it’s because it’s local, organic and sustainable. Some businesses put those philosophies out there and do not live up to it,” Baran said. “Everyone has their reasons, but what it comes down to is that we have great products and are an organization that is walking the walk.”

Baran sees the co-op as a community and explained that people come to hang out — the market’s not just a place to buy groceries.

“For most, it’s more about the money than about the future,” Baran said. “We are the other guys.”

Baran explained that co-ops are fighting a battle against domineering systems that select seed strains and threaten the diversity of food. According to him, it is a hard battle and the co-ops are on the losing side, but they still put up a fight. They want choice. The local farmers choose seeds that work best in their specific climates — a right that he said has become endangered.

By buying local produce, co-op customers support the local farmers who do not genetically modify or hormonally boost fruits and vegetables.

“Historically, our species has been about the community, and that’s what we’ve been losing as the world changes. And if we continue in this paradigm, we are giving up control to large organizations and companies,” Baran said.

According to Baran, about 25 percent of the store’s produce is local during the winter, but that percentage increases during the summer. Besides local meat and cheese, the EEFC has many local products too: bread, pasta, tea and even beauty products.

Baran explained that there is a periphery and a center of the store. The periphery includes the bulk and perishable products that offer customers great deals. The center displays the brand-name products. Although store organizers buy the brand-name items through a distributor, it’s harder to compete in that area. It’s the periphery that sets them apart.

A member of the co-op pays $100 each year to receive store discounts and the power to vote for the Board of Directors. Members may volunteer in the store and participate in co-op committees as well. There are more than 8,000 shareholders in the East End Food Co-op. Non-members are welcome to shop at the co-op, but they do not receive the discounts.

This is why Leiden shops at the co-op — it’s all more local and accessible. He can go directly to the staff, or even the general manager, to ask questions about products instead of having to go through 20 different corporate offices.

“The same idea you have for local food is applied to the co-op rather than any mass-market chain, in that you want local infrastructure, local buying power, and local ideas able to be thrown at people and not just instantly thrown away,” Leiden said.

Leiden acknowledged that this access is exceptional for most of the institutions that dominate our day-to-day activities. Food, though, is a big part of our lives.

“I would say my interest in food — and finding cool places to buy cool food — is that food affects the world more than anything. Everyone eats. Food is the largest factor of environmental degradation. It’s one of the largest factors of third-world disempowerment,” Leiden said.

“It’s one of the largest factors of — obviously — animal cruelty. It plays a part in every infrastructure, whether you’re in central Pennsylvania or San Francisco, and it should really be something that adds a solution rather than more problems … And I think the co-op is one of the best solutions ever.”

Christine Johnson would agree — she is the Northeast regional organizer of the Cooperative Food Empowerment Directive, and she travels to different universities to help students start up co-ops at their schools. Johnson visited Pittsburgh to help a student at Chatham University begin developing a food co-op.

“We don’t necessarily demand that students focus on local foods,” Johnson said. “We have no overarching demands: Some students do 80 percent local, 20 percent non-local and some do 50 percent organic and maybe 20 percent that is not organic, to make pricing more affordable.”

Johnson explained that she is usually contacted by interested students and provides them with information to help their game plans: She provides information on grants, money, space — everything that makes a food co-op feasible. She explained that it varies depending on the school: the campus structure and the food stores available. For universities with urban environments, it is harder to find the space needed.

Chatham University’s newly acquired Eden Hall now houses the School of Sustainability and the Environment. The university offers a master’s program in food studies that focuses on food systems: sustainable agriculture, food production and culinary examination. With a welcoming environment for a co-op, Chatham is one university where Johnson plans to extend her efforts.

CoFED began the Real Food Challenge, a campaign spearheaded by students, to increase the amount of “real food” on college campuses by creating a network to leverage buying power and increase control of food. The challenge’s organizers want to shift industrial-junk-food budgets at universities toward healthy, local, sustainable food sources.

There are some large corporation grocery stores that boast organic selection, and Johnson explained that they can rely on marketing. The university co-ops that she helps are not for profit, and any profit garnered is used to help build up other co-ops or to improve the co-op rather than to produce future profit through marketing.

“There is cooperation among the cooperative,” Johnson said. “In the co-op community, those who are more attracted to it are more empowered.”

On East End Food Co-ops’s website, there are specific farms with their exact location listed under “Where Our ___ Comes From” for produce, meat and cheese. This is more information than most consumers get from other food suppliers.

According to Baran and Leiden, who both choose to participate in a food co-op, they do not preach about it and do not think such promotion would help. They each choose to live the way they do and hope others see the benefits as well. As parting advice, Leiden offered: “Cook with your friends — it’s fun.”