Dining Guide: The East End Co-op: The value in working for food

By Jessica Craig / Columnist

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The East End Food Co-op, 7516 Meade St. An industrial-looking yellow and sage painted building that tries to be a grocery store — wide sliding glass doors, posters of fruits and vegetables hanging in the ground-floor store windows, a metal-lined cart return aisle labeled “RETURN CARTS HERE.”

Sunday, Sept. 14, 8 a.m. The store is just opening for the day, and, for the first time in 34 years, volunteer members will not be on hand to stack and organize shelves, sweep aisles and process incoming shipments.

The East End Food Co-op, which opened in 1980 before buying organic was a nationwide foodie fad, is Pittsburgh’s only cooperatively-owned natural and organic full-service grocery store. While the grocer is open to the public, the co-op’s membership has experienced tremendous growth in the past few years. But the co-op recently announced the termination of its volunteer program — members could volunteer in the store in exchange for discounts and price cuts — upon discovering it was unlawful for them to have volunteers, according to the Fair Labor Standards Act.

“A lot of co-ops throughout the country have ended their programs for the same reasons we have,” Justin Pizella, the co-op’s general manager, said. “Other co-ops are working on trying to create a program that complies with the law, works for its members and works for the co-op. We’re in that second group of co-ops and we’re committed to continuing to work to craft a program that minimizes the risk for the business and is legal.”

But while the loss of the volunteer program brings the loss of a close-knit community, it could be the spark that revolutionizes the way the United States government provides food to people in need. 

As the co-op’s managerial staff rush to create legal volunteer systems, a powerful nationwide welfare revolution sits on the horizon. Co-ops joining together, along with other grocery store chains, farmer’s markets and food vendors, could give rise to a welfare revolution in which volunteering to work at a grocery store in exchange for discounted foods could augment welfare programs such as Child and Adult Care Food Program, WIC and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. 

Allowing able-bodied volunteers to work for meals, rather than to rely on government aid, will allow people easier access to a more abundant source of food — as the current system for obtaining food stamps, for example, can be lengthy and frustrating and cause many people in need to go unnoticed. 

Additionally, implementing a type of volunteer program like this will greatly reduce the size, cost and American reliance on governmental welfare programs, which have experienced tremendous growth in past years. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which is responsible for providing food stamps, served 47 million Americans at the cost of $83 billion in 2013.

The ability of welfare programs to serve more Americans is not a measure of success. It is a measure of the amount of people who don’t have the means provide for themselves. And the ultimate goal of welfare systems should be, as Ronald Reagan said, “To eliminate, as far as possible, the need for its own existence.”

Aside from the tangible benefits, a volunteer program will provide underprivileged Americans with an opportunity to put something on their resume. And from a psychological point of view, the work-reward cycle is important in establishing self-sufficiency and autonomy. A volunteer system will provide an outlet of stability, which is generally lacking from government-run programs. Providing Americans with opportunities to work, even if it is strictly volunteer work, will be a stepping stone for them to find other jobs. 

This proposed nationwide volunteer for discounted food will not come at the cost of grocery stores either.

In recent years, grocery stores across the country have opted to hire many part-time employees, rather than full-time employees, to circumvent labor unions’ standards for fair pay, vacation time and retirement plans. As a result, grocery stores hire a larger number of employees and are constantly hiring new employees to keep up with demand. 

In addition, grocery stores such as Safeway and Food Lion already supplement wages with food and store discounts, especially for employees in traditionally higher paying positions such as butchers, managers and deli chefs. 

Allowing volunteers to work solely for discounts doesn’t seem like a far-off stretch from this trend. Of course some legal intercourse will be necessary to prevent exploitation of volunteer labor.

The implementation of a volunteer for discounted food system across the country will save the government billions of dollar and will greatly diminish the size of governmental aid programs. But, more importantly, it will help people that the current aid programs simply do not reach and will allow people living in poverty to have more control over what aid they receive rather than being at the mercy of the American bureaucracy. 

Write to Jessica at jnc34@pitt.edu

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