A couple months ago I had dinner with some new friends in Brooklyn and we started talking about food: what we like to eat, feelings about vegetarianism, where we shop, how much we cook at home and a plethora of other food related issues. Since becoming more interested in food sources and the quality of my food, I’ve taken steps to educate myself about a number of things including cost and nutrition. This all lead me to look for alternative ways of buying food than from the average American grocery store. Original catalysts being price and quality of food quickly lead me to issues like human labor, the treatment of animals and the environment and I realized that our food supply is a deeply layered and complex part of our daily lives and culture.
I started reserving Saturday mornings for my weekly trip to the farmer’s market. Roaming make shift aisles under each vendors tent have became personal solace for me and now I get to smell the newly picked basil, crisp fresh apples and pungent eucalyptus. Trying to decide between purple and yellow cauliflower evolved into a personal challenge while mulling over taste experiments the weeks’ dinner might take on.
As dinner progressed, my friend Jared started talking about shopping at the local Park Slope Food Coop. I’d passed the co-op a million times walking or riding my bike around the neighborhood and always wanted to check it out. Food co-ops are known for having organic and/or minimally treated produce, use volunteers for labor and work under a democratic system of checks and balances where the members work to keep costs low and a sense of community strong. I asked Jared if I could join him on one of his shopping trips to talk about his experiences with the co-op and anything else he wanted to share about eating well and consumer consciousness. To my delight, he was more than happy to oblige.
Caroline Benzing: What is the difference between a food co-op and a typical grocery store like C-Town or Key Foods?
Jared Bunde: The markup. We have a set [number]. It’s something like 12 percent over whole sale and is offset by the members doing their shifts. So you know a lot of the jobs the grocery stores are paying people to do the members here do, from stocking the shelves and sweeping the floor and doing the maintenance stuff. The cashiers are all members pricing things. So the co-op doesn’t have to pay as much for labor.
CB: What is one of your favorite things about the co-op?
JB: [In the produce section.] A lot of the stuff here is pretty much well labeled. We have organic and minimally treated stuff. I tend to buy a lot of the minimally treated stuff. It’s a little bit less expensive. Theoretically what they do is treat it only during the specific stages of the cycle [growing]. One of the main things that’s really nice about shopping here is everything is labeled pretty well: where it’s from, what farms they’re from. There is a wax notice. I held off on eating apples. They had organic apples from Chile but I waited for my minimally treated ones from upstate New York.
CB: What are your shifts like?
JB: I do receiving. I unpack things.
CB: I’m noticing products like Tropicana, Nabisco, and Kraft are on the shelves. I’m surprised to see these name brands at a co-op. Can you explain the variety of products and brands? Does the co-op offer information on the farms and corporate brands represented here?
JB: Most of it you’re going to see in a normal grocery store. Each co-op is kind of different. There is a new one out in East New York. Here you can buy a lot of specialty foods. I mean even Krasdale is here. A lot of the stuff I find out comes from talking to other members. Because it is such a large co-op the farmers for example would be a pretty substantial size. You wouldn’t want to buy apples from a farmer that’s going to be out of apples next week. There are 30,000 members here.
CB: Wow! That’s a lot! Ok, I see you’re buying flour now. What do you plan on doing with that?
JB: In the winter now that the temperature has gotten cooler, I’ll start to bake bread again. Not what you really want to do in summer time.
CB: Nice. I love to cook, but don’t bake. Let me know when that bread’s ready.
Jared, you just pulled out your own used plastic bags. That’s awesome.
JB: And crazy. I wash out my own plastic bags.
CB: It’s only crazy because it’s rare and that’s a shame. I want to talk about fresh produce a bit more. Between the amazing taste and colors, fresh produce is unbeatable. I know you’re into fresh produce as well, but I don’t see you getting a lot here. Do you have another source for fruits and vegetables?
JB: A lot of my veggies I get from the CSA more than I get here. CSA is community supported agriculture. In the beginning of the growing season you buy a share of what the farmer is going to produce. So you as a member, you take on some of the risk that the farmer does as well. If they have a really crappy growing season, you don’t get as much produce. The farmer that runs the CSA I’m at is really good and it’s always more than enough produce.
CB: Where is it located?
JB: He’s located in upstate New York, off the Taconic.
CB: How did you come to use the CSA?
JB: I actually found about CSAs when I lived in Vermont. I worked at a couple small farms. The way one of the guys was able to stay afloat was through being a CSA.
CB: How do you get the produce? Do you travel upstate every so often?
JB: He makes weekly deliveries in the city. I then go pick up my produce.
CB: What kind of farm is it? Is it all around organic?
JB: He does all organic vegetables. I think he might have chickens on the farm but he doesn’t produce any meat. He eats a little bit of meat but doesn’t produce meat.
CB: Does he produce all year round?
JB: There’s a summer share and then there is a winter share. The winter share, just because of where we live, tends to be like root crops: turnips, potatoes. I’d like to get into canning or pickling more. My mom always did a lot and it’s a good way of eating kind of regionally but year round.
CB: Can you tell me more about your diet? I know you were a vegetarian for about 12 years, but when you started racing bikes and became an athlete, you started eating meat again. Now in your early thirties, I’m interested in learning more about your personal food choices.
JB: What I was looking to do was really diversify my diet. When I started to eat meat it was when I went to race bicycles in Belgium. And the laws governing what they can and can’t add to feed are different and also their laws concerning genetically modified food are different…which are things I’m kind of interested in avoiding. I felt safer eating the meat there. And then here, I get most of my meat from a buying club. With that I pay membership dues to the club. And then they have set delivery days to one location in the city. You place your order online and then pick it up at the set location.
CB: What is so special about this meat? Is there FDA or USDA certification?
JB: Um, to me, one of things that make it worth it is you’re buying it directly from a farmer. You’re cutting out the middle man. These guys are Mennonite farmers from Pennsylvania. All the meat is pasteurized raised, grass fed, but they don’t have USDA certification. So they’re not paying the fees to the government to receive USDA certification. So they can sell what’s technically organic meat or grass feed, but they couldn’t put a USDA organic label on it. Grass fed, grass finished, that’s kind of what you look for. Like with eggs, to me cage free is better than organic because it means the chickens actually go outside. For each of the different labeling and laws, there are rules you have to follow. And organic doesn’t mean the chickens see the light of day. It’s still a factory farmed animal.
CB: So you care more about the fact that the chicken can run around free than whether or not it’s being given organic feed. Is that correct?
JB: Yea, I would say so. The quality of the animal’s life in some ways beforehand [is more important]. I don’t have a problem with eating animals.
CB: What about the business of the farmer? Can you briefly explain the difference between the Mennonites and corporate farming?
JB: The nice thing with the Mennonites is they seem to be pretty honest people. If you’re looking at chicken and you’re going to pay $4.00 a pound, you can go to C-Town and you can buy chicken for $4.00 a pound from Frank Perdue that’s all totally factory farmed, pumped full of hormones and antibiotics. You can come to the co-op and pay your $4.00 a pound, whatever that number is for your chicken, and I can pay the same 4.00 a pound to the Mennonites and it’s more direct. It’s closer to the model of like a fair trade type thing. More of the money is in the farmer’s hand than the distributor’s hand. Even here at the co-op, everything is through a distributer. Very few products here are going to be bought directly from a farmer. It’s all through huge cooperative distributors. Yea and I’ve met the person that grows my vegetables. I’ve had dinner with him. I’ve met the person that grows the animals for my meat, the person that produces my milk which is really interesting. Some of the other stuff, I don’t know the people. Also, the CSA has an open farm day at the end of every growing season and the Mennonites have had open farm days, which I haven’t had a chance to get to yet.
CB: What’s an open farm day?
JB: People can come see the farm, like with the Mennonites you could come participate in a milking if you wanted to.
CB: I haven’t milked a cow in years. And I have milked one before, believe it or not.
JB: I believe it. [Laughs]
CB: Have you noticed an increase in prices even from your meat farmer and produce farmer?
JB: I don’t think I’ve consciously noticed prices. I’ve never minded spending money on food.
CB: Have your ideas on food consumption influenced choices in other areas of your life?
JB: In general, anything I’d say that the closer you are to the actual production or source, which could be reflected in price or it could just be reflected in mutual gratification between the two parties. In a capitalist kind of world, we’ve already decided that we’re going to pay a set number of dollars for a product. If the producer of that product is getting more of that set number of dollars it’s better for them.
Thank you, Jared, for taking the time to hang out. I had a ton of fun and you’ve given me a lot to think about. On that note, I hope to learn more about CSAs, federal regulations on meat and dairy, and labor laws. Stay tuned!
The Park Slope Food Coop is located at:
782 Union Street (between 6th and 7th Avenues in Park Slope)
Brooklyn, New York 11215