We’ve long been defenders of the Park Slope Food Coop, but the place has been a raging nut house lately. According to the Linewaters’ Gazette, the coop’s biweekly newsletter, membership is up 10 percent in the last year, causing aisle gridlock, endless lines and a pervasive crankiness about the place. Do coop members really save enough to make it all worthwhile? Not necessarily. We crunched some numbers.
The obvious alternative to the coop is Fairway, since so many other Brooklyn food stores are either crazy-expensive boutiques or weird-smelling chains. But isn’t Fairway much pricier than the venerable hippie holdout? With the help of Brokelyn contributor Gretchen Muller, we recently price-checked a sample basket of grocery items at each store (current prices may vary). Here’s what we found:
COOP / FAIRWAY
1 pound bag baby spring lettuce mix
$5.16 / $5.99
1 pound seedless green non-organic grapes
$1.96 / $1.49
1 quart Spectrum organic canola oil
$8.12 / $10.79
1 pound Murray’s boneless, organic chicken breasts
$4.98 / $5.69
Sabra hummus with pine nuts
$3.87 / $4.79
Applegate Farms fire-roasted red pepper sausage
$5.67 / $5.99
YoBaby yogurt six-pack
$3.33 / $3.89
Half-gallon Tropicana orange juice
$3.36 / $3.69
1 8-ounce Philadelphia bar cream cheese
$2.19 / $2.49
Newman’s Own roasted garlic sauce
$2.53 / $2.49
Bonne Maman apricot preserves
$3.32 / $3.69
Seventh Generation laundry detergent
$13.58 (for 100-ounce box) / $15.98 (2 50-ounce boxes)
Annie’s shitake vinaigrette
$4.30 / $5.49
Solgar B complex 100 vitamins/100 caps
$9.48 / $16.72
1 six-pack Blue Point toasted lager
$8.16 / $9.99
Ben & Jerry’s coffee heath bar crunch
$3.48 / $3.79
And so the grand total is:
FOOD COOP: $83.49
Based on our very random sample, Fairway prices are a not insignificant 23 percent more than the coop’s. So now let’s take a hypothetical couple, coop members, and say they spend $100 a week on groceries for a total annual expenditure of $5,200. The same groceries would have cost them 23 percent more at Fairway, or about $1,200 more. So far, so good. But there’s another thing to consider—the coop’s work requirement. Each adult member of the household has to work 2.75-hour shift a month, which adds up to roughly a week a year.
Basing the decision to join or not to join the coop on cold hard math alone, the household’s total labor must be worth less than $1,200 a week, or $62,400 a year for the coop to be a good deal.
If you take away the vitamins, which account for the biggest difference in prices between the coop and Fairway, the spread drops to 16.5 percent, or roughly $860 over the course of the year. Using the same math, that makes the coop a worthwhile business decision for a household whose labor is valued at less than that amount per week, or roughly $44,700 a year. (These calculations assume, of course, that you attend all of your shifts and don’t wind up owing extra ones. If you miss a shift and don’t replace yourself, coop policy requires you to work an extra one to maintain your shopping privileges.)
But if you spend more, the coop is worth more to you, obviously. If our vitamin-loving couple spends $200 a week at the coop, they could make up to $124,800 a year for it to be worthwhile. Our non-vitamin couple, spending $200 a week, and saving roughly $2,400 a year, could make up to just over $89,000 a year.
Of course there are lots of other benefits to coop membership that math alone can’t account for: free childcare when you shop, exceptionally high quality meat and produce, the entertainment value of the general meetings, convenience if you live in the Slope and don’t have a car, etc. But is it really worth the growing hassle?
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“But is it really worth the growing hassle?”
Yep. It really is worth it. Knowing where and whom your food comes from, knowing that cows are being fed grass and not bloating corn, and the unbelievable selection of other goods you won’t find at Fairway or anywhere else, all this makes it worth it. Of course, the occasional trip to Fairway for some stuff they only have there is OK too.
Here’s essentially why I don’t think it is worth the hassle:
The Co-op still reeks of status influence. To use the extreme example (which is actually quite realistic), if I’m a working single mother who is living paycheck-to-paycheck, I doubt I would have extra time in my schedule to work a non-paid shift at the Co-op, if the savings are, for the most part, insignificant.
That’s what kills me about this. While it’s a great idea in theory, if you take a sample of the people who patronize the Co-op, more likely than not, you’ll see that these people are not counting their dimes and nickles. As in, it’s more the theory for them, than the money actually esaved.
Although — if the Co-op accepts food stamps, then I stand corrected. But, if not, then that would be wonderful if the only way to get fresh, local, organic food at low prices was not that you had to work for it, because many parents do not have a moment to spare, as is.
The coop does accept food stamps
what about trader joe’s? it’s significantly cheaper than both options.
FYI,the co-op does in fact take food stamps.
I can understand how, to some, the co-op “reeks of status influence” and a certain type of cultural elitism. And, to be sure, there are wealthy members who probably aren’t too concerned about how much their groceries cost. But I’m a member, and I’m a long way from wealthy. And in the two years I’ve been a member, I have to say I’ve been impressed by the true ethnic and cultural diversity that exists among the membership pool. Like, not everyone in there owns a brownstone on PPW. I get the working single mother argument (I grew up with one of those), but come on, free child care? I don’t think Fairway offers that. I feel like the co-op is at least making an effort to be all inclusive. That’s actually the whole idea: cheap, healthy, fresh food at low prices for working members, and anyone can be a member, and many, many different kinds of people are. I always feel like there is a giant cross section of Brooklyn in there, on any given day.
The article didn’t really get into the huge, gorgeous, incredibly fresh array of seasonal produce that the co-op offers. Its got Whole Foods beat, for sure, both in terms of price and quality. That’s where you really save money. And what about the cheese? The cheese!! The cheese is pretty much what got me to join. Cheese shop quality, from all over the world, artisinal, raw, local, what have you…and so cheap.
I’m a member because I’m a foodie and a cook, and I like saving some money and knowing where my food comes from, and to me there’s no better place to shop for groceries. But I digress. People love to hate on the co-op, its kind of funny actually. This is my first time ever posting about it. The place has been there for 35 years, it certainly doesn’t need me to defend it.
I love the food coop. I certainly save money and eat much better quality food than if I shopped locally in Park Slope. I can’t always run over to Fairway or Trader Joes. OK, the Coop does get a little kooky at times in a spacey hippy way. That just comes with the territory.
Another benefit of the coop is that the paid staff get paid a living wage. A comparison of wages between Fairway and PSFC would be interesting.
Additionally the member work criteria is a community building exercise. By working a shift you get to meet many of your neighbors that you many never get to meet otherwise.
You’re forgetting the fact that Fairway is really, really, really far away. For the vast majority of us who don’t have cars, add in the cost of a Zipcar or a car service from Fairway.
The beauty of this comparison is that it absolves me of my guilt for leaving the coop. But I was pretty much over it, given the tsurris coop life causes. I think the coop’s community-building is way overrated–it builds community for those who live in the community, perhaps. And it’s good for those who can afford the time. I’ve found that the Red Hook Coop, aka Fairway, is very convenient and an even closer deal than the above comparison if you shop carefully. And the seafood counter and waterfront playspace for the kid are unbeatable. The time I spend driving to Red Hook is nothing compared to the time I spent looking for a parking space or paying for the garage in Park Slope.
I was a part of a coop back in colorado and they allowed everyone to shop there! Membership was $25 a year (or more if you’d like) and members got discounts everytime they shopped and an additional 10% off one day a month on the day of there choice. You were never asked to work shifts and you were never turned away if you weren’t a memeber. Most if not all (depending on season) of produce wasn’t only organic, but local!
I live two blocks from PS coop and i’m irritated just looking at it. I get the “building the Community”, but requiring work on top of membership fees. Even just requiring membership fees. Hey if they opened up there doors to everyone, then they could charge more for non-members and believe me i think people would go.
Flatbush Food Coop all the way! 16% discounts for working members!
And what about CSAs? Even better!
I moved to Brooklyn about year and a half ago. I fit into the gentrification category, based on my profession (lawyer), although not on my income. I hesitated to join the co-op because I heard about the liberal ‘fascists’. But I’ve worked a few dozen shifts now and I have never met one. I’m sure they’re there – but I don’t know who they pester.
The comparison is bogus, because the co-op is up front that it doesn’t always beat brand names, many of which supermarkets take at a loss in order to push other products. I like the co-op because I get to socialize with people, and it’s an interesting bunch. We don’t talk about what we do, we just chat, and that counts for something. I save probably 40 percent on cheese and a heck of a lot on Cliff Bars, trail mix, yogurt. Also those bath and shower products.
I don’t cook a lot of meat or produce. For me it’s worth it, but I shop very strategically. After work is too crowded, and so is right after kids get out of school. Missing a shift can be a real hassle too. I honestly don’t understand how people with full time — or overtime — jobs can remain members though. And I don’t think they are.
The place isn’t for everyone, but you get the feeling, especially after working a few shifts, that something special is going on to have a community like that in a big city.
great analysis. you forgot to factor in the social aspect. my husband LOVES working at the coop and this is an excuse for him to get out of the house (and childcare) and he does my shift too. we have had countless arguments about leaving because i think it is too much time (especially when you factor in how long it takes to just buy stuff let alone the work factor). and i know this is odd, but he is not your typical coop maniac, but super friendly easy going guy (and this is who everyone should want to work with and having working there).
i just moved to PS and have been considering joining the coop. while i only live 5min away and support the idea of a coop, i’ve been having second thoughts on becoming a member.
my roommate just went to an orientation last night (her BF is a member), and was told that i had to become a member too (so as not to mooch off my roommate’s membership??) and was given an ultimatum: ‘i had 6 weeks to join.’
the more i hear about the almost cult-like coop, the better i like the equidistant no-strings-attached trader joe’s…
I always feel like the status/privilege stuff is undone by the fact that the coop doesn’t take credit cards. Credit cards charge a processing fee, which they can’t ask the person using their credit card to pay–it’s a violation of the credit issuers’ rules. So, basically this means credit card processing fees have to be built into the price of all items for any place that takes credit cards. And the coop said it’s not fair to ask all people to pay more to subsidize the convenience of those people who want to use credit cards.
And yeah, it’s totally culty. But it’s kind of part of the charm, especially because about 30% of the people are culty and the other 70% of us have a sense of humor about it because really, it’s kind of cool to be totally invested in your supermarket. And I find the shifts fun. I mean, when else do I get to work a floor zamboni?
And yeah, if you join the coop, everyone in your household (basically, anyone who shares your kitchen) is supposed to join so they make sure you don’t mooch. But it’s not like they do house checks! I had a roommate at my old place, she never joined, I didn’t tell and they…well, they did ask, but I still didn’t tell.
“Hey if they opened up there doors to everyone, then they could charge more for non-members and believe me i think people would go.”
And the reason they don’t do this is because it’s not fair for people who can’t afford to work for free to pay more! That’s the reason they’re really flexible in terms of workshifts, and if you are that single mom who’s barely making ends meet–well, sometimes you mysteriously always get signed in even when you don’t make your shift. But if instead they said “oh, you can’t afford to donate your time? Okay, so you pay 20% more than the guy who’s well-off enough that he can afford to work for free,” that’s profoundly unjust.
I just stumbled across this post but the workslot time/wage analysis seemed to be assuming that people could in theory get paid for working at their jobs that same time they work at the coop. I don’t think that is true for most people. If you are hourly you are scheduled by your supervisor and probably are held at a certain number of hours by them. If you are salaried then even if you put in 100 hours a week you’re not getting paid a cent more. Therefore, the savings are there regardless of your household’s income (unless you are, say, a freelancer with unlimited jobs to do – then coop work might take away from income-earning time). For me – working is just taking away from my internet-surfing/tv-watching time, for which I am sadly unpaid.
While I’m posting I wanted to comment on the elitism thing. Nobody has once said anything snotty to me about my food choices, not buying organic, etc. There are plenty of coop members who watch their spending carefully – I am one of those people. There are even people on public assistance who are members.
I only buy at the coop what is cheaper there (cage-free eggs, high quality cheeses, bulk products, spices, packaged soy products, paper/plastic goods, many canned goods, granola bars, etc.) and not what other stores clearly sell at a loss to attract customers (flour, sugar, butter, regular cheeses, weekly sale items). I also prefer buying my produce at the coop because it almost always is much higher quality for slightly less money.
I really wish the backlash against coop members would stop. It has gotten to the point that mentioning being a member on Brooklyn forums almost always elicits a negative response (even if the purpose of the discussion wasn’t to necessarily discuss the pros/cons of coop membership). I just go there to buy my eggs and veggies and bulk products at a discount. I don’t want/need to be judged walking down the street because I’m carrying my stuff home in my (free) coop reusable bag.
To grapemaster: If you don’t want to join and your roommate really does, you don’t have to. Your roomie just needs to tell the office that you two absolutely do not share food. The rule is just there for the many “flexible” living households where roomies share food; they won’t forbid someone from joining if their roomie doesn’t want to join.
I moved to Park Slope in 1996 — Union Street between 4th and 5th. Naturally, my wife and I were interested in checking out the co-op, since it was just up the street.
We walked in, and asked to look around, and were stunned to find ourselves forbidden to look at the place unless we agreed to be physically escorted — I’m not kidding, I mean, hand-on-the-elbow-escorted, as if we were potential shoplifters.
We’ve never been back. The Park Slope Food Co-op can piss up a rope as far as I’m concerned. I have a high tolerance for the cultiness of well-meaning countercultural outfits, but tolerance ends when physical coerciveness begins.
Why compare a dodge to a benz? If you want to compare costs, compare costs of equally high quality produce. Try the comparison against Whole Foods.
I think this is the most civil discussion I’ve ever seen on the topic of the PSFC–Certainly beats the general meetings on that front.
Thanks for all of your intelligent, thoughtful comments (on all sides of the issue). I was wondering whether I’m crazy or if this seems odd to other people too: https://www.brokelyn.com/does-anyone-else-think-this-is-weird/
You really want to save money? By all your sauces and stuff from the Coop or Whole Foods or Fairway.
Buy all your fresh fruit, meat and vegetables from Chinatown!!!
In Brooklyn, you have a choice of Sunset Park, Ave U and Bay Ridge Chinese supermarkets. It’ll be half price versus the stuff at Fairway and the like.
I spent 20 bucks the other day, and got beef short ribs, chicken and ground beef (a little over a lb each) Plus, 3 kinds of fresh vegetables (1 lbs each). And an a small bag of onions.
The PSFC is so yesterday since its model harms the local economy as well as small, local businesses. You can get great food very close to Park Slope: the Church Avenue fruit and vegetable stand near Flatbush, the local CSAs, the farmers’markets and the Flatbush Food Co-op. However to be fair, PSFC members have to love working at the co-op or the venture of being a member would be pointless.
Interesting cost comparison, though I would like to see a similar one with Whole Foods since they tend to have more organic produce (or better quality organic produce) than Fairway does.
I was a member of the co-op about 8 years ago. The roommate requirement was a drag. My roommate at the time would always forget to do her shifts and the co-op rules wouldn’t let me make them up for her, so we were often suspended. Unfortunately, the co-op rules are made to deal with people who are dishonest and try to cheat the system.
I left the co-op when I moved far enough away that it was a hassle to go there to shop and to work, and when I witnessed a punch out between my squad leader and someone on the squad who wanted to leave early.
It’s definitely an odd place, not for everyone, but I do miss the great prices.
I am a penny pincher and a mom and though the coop can sometimes be over crowded the food selection is well worth it. I work at the soup kitchen and not in the actual coop so I am not apart of the social network of the coop. Working at the soup kitchen gives me a sense of service, makes me feel good after my shift and has taught me the importance of giving back. I would continue to volunteer at the soup kitchen even if I left the coop.
So my overall experience is I feel good for helping my community and I feel good for feeding my family fresh, local produce and organic products. It’s a win/win in my book.
Christ, I’d rather pay double to avoid the snobby, mean Park Slope Moms at the coop.
#1: The PSFC has not changed its initiation fees in over 8 years. I know, because I’ve been a member-owner since 2001. There is a ONE time fee of $25 plus a $100 member investment; the member investment secures your rights as an owner in the coop and, should you ever decide to leave, this investment is fully refundable. If you are on income-based public assistance, the fee is reduced to $5 plus a $10 member investment. These fees are required of anyone over 18 who is sharing all or some of the products purchased at the PSFC if they live in the same home. You may pay this in installments along with your groceries upon check-out.
#2: The PSFC’s work requirement is 2.75 hours per adult member, every 4 weeks. This works out to about 13 shifts per year for a single member-owner, totaling 35.75 hours annually. Most people are surprised to find that they enjoy the work, make friends and look forward to their shifts, often finding it to be meaningful labor, such as Carla has found in combining volunteer work with her member-ownership requirements.
#3: The PSFC does accept the EBT card (aka: food stamps) for payment of all qualifying purchases. Member-ownership encompasses every economic class, from those who live in Section 8 housing to bonafide movie stars.
#4: In my experience, I have never encountered the elitism, snobbery or insolence mentioned in some of the above posts. It is truly regrettable if this was your experience and I urge you to give us another try. Remember, 75% of the labor is done by coop member-owners – most of us are not professionals at the service we provide. Even so, we have managed to keep our collectively owned and operated store successful since 1973. Given our widely varying backgrounds, we do our best to be neighborly and cooperative. I personally apologize for those who were discourteous to you.
#5: The PSFC is not for everyone, just like living in a coop building is not for everyone. It is a community first, and one of the primary benefits of joining the community is enjoying significant savings on high quality products. We also offer so much more than inexpensive food: cooking classes, seminars, pot-lucks, clothing & toy swaps, talent shows, musical performances, and a vote in how our store is run. However, we understand and appreciate that not everyone is open to participating within the structure we have set. Our structure works well for us: 15,000 working member-owners contributing to $35 million in annual sales attest to this fact.
#6: Average retail mark-up is 50-100% above cost. The PSFC’s mark-up is 21%. We do accept manufacturer’s coupons. Payment for your groceries may be in Cash, Debit, EBT or Check (if you join the check-writing program).
#7: There is no such thing as the Coop Police. We are an honor-based organization. Integrity is the key to our success. We ask our fellow member-owners to keep that in mind in making any decisions pertaining to the coop.
#8: Instead of doing harm to local businesses, the PSFC has actually stimulated and enhanced the businesses around us by providing a healthy competition to up the stakes and raise the quality of products and services offered. How else could you explain the success of our nearest competitors? Union Market, Blue Apron, Back to the Land, at least 3 CSAs, to name a few, all were established well after the PSFC began, each filling their own niche and earning their own share. Looking at it this way, one could say the PSFC is the linchpin of Park Slope as a shopping destination.
#9: Free child care is offered to member-owners whom are working or shopping within the coop. So single working mothers (and fathers) have that going in their favor. Also, should you birth or adopt a child, you qualify for 12 shifts of parental leave for the first year you parent your child. The 12 shifts off is per household, per child, so couples share those 12 shifts amongst themselves, but if you’re a single parent, those 12 shifts off are yours alone. If you have twins, you get 24 shifts off. Triplets? 36 shifts off. This way you can still shop, and care for your growing family.
#10: We also offer disability leave, for the length of your disability, pending a healthcare provider’s letter vouching for your condition. Remember, we are a community, and we are here to look out for each other. If your disability prevents you from shopping for yourself, you can assign your shopping privileges to a non-member-owner so they can shop for you. This way, you can still eat well as you convalesce.
I hope this clears up some misconceptions of the coop. I take my member-ownership there seriously, and want others to understand that it really is an amazing institution. I truly love the place and the thousands of people I have met there.
I’m proud of being part of something larger that has raised the living standards of so many whom otherwise could not afford it. I love that I have a voice in how it is run, from voting on board members, payment methods and work requirements to suggesting products that we stock on our shelves.
I am awed at our numbers, of how many like-minded individuals have found a gathering place, and how many of them have since been inspired to start their own cooperative groceries, such as the ones in East Flatbush, Bed-Stuy and Harlem, further enriching those vibrant neighborhoods with high quality produce and products at affordable prices.
I am empowered knowing that the PSFC has become a respected political voice on an international scale. Some member-owners contribute their time by lobbying both state and national congresses for truth in labeling of genetically modified foods. Others have taken on massive conglomerates such as ConAgra to question their business practices. We support local farmers as much as possible, leading to fresher products, wider variety and loyal purveyors who give us first pick of their crops in thanks for helping their family farms to stay in business and thrive.
Plus, I really love the great music we play there! It’s fantastic to hear indie-pop juxtaposed with jazz, opera and hip-hop within one shift. Makes the time fly right by, whether waiting on line to check out or doing my work requirement. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
My husband was a park slope co-op member in the 1970’s and I was a co-founding member of the Flatbush coop, my dear husband still owes work hours to the parkslope coop he did not fulfill in 1979. He can’t rejoin until he makes up those hours.
It’s emotionally saner to shop at Fairway and the Green Market. Ones sanity and time is worth something.
You might want to check on that, one smart cookie. My understanding is that once you owe more than 6 shifts, you may wait a year and rejoin. A great deal has changed in 30 years. I’m fairly certain you and your husband would be welcomed back with open arms.
As I and others have said, it’s good for some, but not everyone. The beauty is having it available as an alternative to the standard supermarket scene. Your priorities and preferences are golden, and are unique to you. I’m happy to have the choice – my Coop helps me feel empowered, rooted and nourished.
Thanks for the price comparison. I’m moving from the heart of Park Slope to East Village & have been considering whether it’s worth it keep up my membership (I’m a foodie who will live with 2 major foodies, so we have incentive.)
However, this side-by-side comparison doesn’t reflect what I consider the Coop’s real advantage: inexpensive, high-quality bulk commodities, including cheeses, nuts, grains, dried fruit, coffee, etc.
I can put together a truly fabulous cheese plate & selection of party munchies for under $20. You can’t do that at any other grocery store.
That’s true, Norah. But did you ever wonder why they always make the cheese wedges so small at the coop? Makes me crazy!
Yeah, they’re dinky but you can call and have them put aside a bigger piece for you. You can also go to the Dartagnan website and pick out something fancy and they’ll order it for you.
I love the Coop. Please, all you haters, continue to hate and badmouth us, because we are at 14,000 members and counting. Crowded? Yes! Crazy? Yes! so DON’T JOIN. Seriously, I don’t want to have to wait behind you in the express lane while you wander off to grab more cheap gorgeous produce and fill your cart with WAAAAY more than 15 items.
and to respond to the comments above suggesting that we offer members a 10% discount, open up to the public, and drop the work requirement, keep in mind that the coop is not a for-profit grocery store. Check out the mission statement at foodcoop.com “We share responsibilities and benefits equally.” and “We are a buying agent for our members and not a selling agent for any industry.”
@one smart cookie Unless he already took advantage of it, your hub can rejoin & get amnesty for past shifts owed.
Don’t forget the bulk foods section. It’s an entire aisle of grains, granola, pasta, dried fruits, nuts, teas, spices, etc. This is great bec. you’re not stuck with a $8 jar of spices that’s gonna lost flavor & potency. We’ve tried so many new recipes this way.
Two words: Trader Joes
I agree with some previous commenters here in that the coop is great for making both organic and conventional produce more affordable; the sample baskets in the article didn’t really reflect that. Also, while I understand the status/elitist point, there really is a lot of ethnic and cultural diversity there.
The coop is definitely *not* for certain people – that is – not for people who have irregular or unpredictable schedules, or work relatively long hours. So, for example, it’s not for most small business owners, or for people whose work involves short-notice travelling. I learned this the hard way, and also learned that there are so many members, that staff-members and work coordinators don’t necessarily care about your problem, and why should they?
I’ve lived in cooperative houses, cooked in cooperative kitchens, and have been an officer in a cooperative organization. When coops become first and foremost about saving money (and what coops are about is what their members are about), the human element goes away. I’m sure this is why the PSFC holds so strongly to their work requirement – they realize that without it, they’re a buying club.
Coops are at root conservative social organizations – they tie people down to a place, a schedule, a culture, and (usually) an ideology. They’re not unlike religious organizations in that way. I don’t mean this judgmentally, but it’s just true. They tend to generate similar conflicts.
Well, the ‘shopping cart’ you put together to compare the Coop with Fairway isn’t representative of the biggest savings the Coop offers, namely, organic/local fruits and vegetables, nor does the price of the products listed reflect the fact that the Coop turns over its entire inventory, roof to basement, more than once a week.
I would be very hard pressed to afford my largely organic diet without the Coop. That doesn’t matter to lots of people — I understand. But it does to me and for that I am grateful to the Coop
@dogisdead – the coop does take EBT, for the record.