Food Cooperatives in Under-served Neighborhoods


The desire to create healthy food resources in urban areas has led to the sprinkling of food cooperatives in under-served neighborhoods, but will the residents bite?  In the following article, Julian Omidi discusses the attitudes about food co-ops in previously underserved regions.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that underserved communities are among the most malnourished.  In poor urban areas, the U.S. government has a designation for areas with limited access to fresh food: Food deserts.  The resources for these areas are typically fast food restaurants and convenience stores, where the only accessible categories of food are processed, rather than whole.  As a result, the inhabitants have far higher incidences of heart disease, obesity and type 2 diabetes. But are food cooperatives, with their organic produce and hip culture, the answer?[1]

Many urban areas are now undergoing a kind of resurgence. These neighborhoods are called “transitional neighborhoods,” but long-time residents consider it gentrification.  In Brooklyn, Oakland, Detroit and other major metropolitan cities, neighborhoods that were primarily inhabited by poor African American and Latino residents now have an influx of food cooperatives, many of them heartily endorsed by local governments and community organizations.  However, the food cooperatives are mainly frequented by the newer and more affluent residents, while being abjured by the long-time citizens.

It isn’t surprising that many locals aren’t going to the food co-ops – the brands are unfamiliar; the produce is organic (and more expensive); co-ops charge membership fees.  The fact that co-ops aren’t open to the general public and require an investment of funds and – often – labor, doesn’t sit well with the old guard.

These co-ops are situated next to familiar convenience stores and dollar shops, some of which sell a smattering of produce that is considerably cheaper than the free-trade, organic co-op alternatives.  Moreover, the culture of the co-op is alien.  Cooperatives are community owned, and therefore the community has a direct responsibility for the operation of the establishment.  For a person with two jobs who travels to and from work by bus, the obligation to devote additional hours to the upkeep of the new store might not be especially appealing.

The core issue is the convergence of two cultures that may not cohere, or even endure.  When a historically low-income community suddenly sees an influx of young professionals, the result isn’t typically the forging of a new kind of community spirit – it is the raising of rent and the systematic exodus of the old residents.  How then, can healthy foods be introduced into a deprived neighborhood without giving the impression that the people are being pushed away?

Hopefully, community organizations can develop relationships with the new neighborhood co-ops, and help their new neighbors understand their value.  If the co-ops are viewed as everyone’s resource and not merely a shop for the hip and privileged, then maybe they will flourish, and become valued parts of an evolving society.

By Julian Omidi


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