Food co-op looks to open store in Bethlehem

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America’s first cooperative feast occurred in 1621, when pilgrims gathered to celebrate the harvest. Were it not for the food, they’d have died, a lingering fact still recognized on Thanksgiving.

Food remains essential, but today’s consumers are no longer so connected to the supply.

To help fix that, passionate people are volunteering to create a store by 2015 that will give shoppers a say in what comes to their tables.

It’s called the Bethlehem Food Co-op.

Nearly two years old, the grassroots effort intends to benefit the community through nutrition, education and empowerment. Plus, it is expected to bolster sales for regional farmers and suppliers when shelves are stocked with as many local products as possible.

Small Lehigh Valley producers that cannot meet distributor and wholesaler demand must find their customers at farmers’ markets, roadside stands or through community-supported-agriculture programs. It’s a choppy, inefficient process for consumer and supplier alike, one that the food co-op hopes to correct.

Anyone will be able to shop at the store, but for a one-time $300 fee, a member gets to vote for what products will be sold.

Nationally, co-ops have evolved to create more than 850,000 jobs and a $650 billion slice of the economy, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2010 proclamation recognizing October as National Cooperative Month.

The City Market, a 16,000-square-foot co-op in Vermont, reported $4 million in local product sales within seven years of opening. Sixty-five percent of the revenue was estimated to have remained in the local economy.

A type of corporation, co-ops operate for the benefit of members instead of outside investors. Through agricultural co-ops, for example, individual farmers market their products as a national brand, such as Land O’Lakes or Ocean Spray.

The Bethlehem Food Co-op idea sprouted from a single ingredient: a red pepper.

Jaime Karpovich, co-op co-founder and host and writer of the “Save the Kales!” RCN cable television show, needed it for a recipe.

The resulting lengthy excursion spotlighted Bethlehem’s lack of corner-store amenities.

“There is not a person around that doesn’t need food,” Karpovich said. “If we are trying to be conscientious consumers and we believe in things like supporting small businesses in our neighborhoods and making more earth-friendly choices, food becomes an important choice that we make multiple times a day.”

Co-ops generally have limited access to capital, and because ownership and governance are scattered among its members, things can get complicated. But the popularity of the co-op model suggests the advantages outweigh the disadvantages.

Colleen Marsh, the co-op’s board chairwoman, is a Bethlehem native and graduate of Moravian College.

Describing this experience, she said, “Folks from all walks of life have found common ground in working to better the place we each call home. The co-op has already had an enormously positive impact on the community without even having the storefront yet, so it is exciting to envision how great the impact will be once the vision becomes a reality.”

At a recent local public meeting of 31 people, a common sentiment was voiced when attendees explained why they wanted a co-op:

• “I want to be mindful of the food I eat.”

• “I hope we can get the food we really want.”

• “I’m here for my child, who I do not want to feed quick-and-processed stuff.”

A feasibility study has been completed and letters of support have been received from local officials. Volunteers are continuing outreach and fundraising while the board works to pinpoint a location for a store that has walkable access, adequate parking and a nearby customer base.

Then, the square footage will dictate the inventory level, and the neighborhood will affect the price point of the products sold.

Wherever it lands, it will carry yearlong a combination of local and nonlocal products.

A counterculture of environmentally conscious individuals already understands the co-op model, but ownership in the Bethlehem Food Co-op is not exclusive.

Ultimately, its neighbors will influence the store’s image and selections, because the best candidates for membership are the people within walking distance.

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