I’ve become used to the inconsistencies of supermarket produce. I’ll put tasteless tomatoes in a salad, or peal a sour orange, and hardly notice it anymore. I just accept it as good enough. Occasionally, I’ll go out of my way to a food co-op, or venture to a local farmers’ market, and remember what real food tastes like. Biting into a ripe, natural tomato from Greensgrow gives the palate a vital reawakening.
Wouldn’t it be great if there were more places that offered fresh, organic food in Kensington? Lena Helen, who is now President of the Kensington Community Food Co-op, asked the same question a few years ago. The idea for a local food co-op came up at an East Kensington Neighbors Association meeting, and was met with instant approval. Since then, KCFC has gone through tremendous growth. The organization recently reached a milestone of 300 members, and is now on the verge of establishing a grocery store.
Lena has been one of many people essential to KCFC’s progress, along with Vice President Peter Frank. Peter is a major proponent of the co-op movement, and has become involved in several local and nationwide initiatives. He currently serves as Advocacy Coordinator for passing the National Cooperative Development Act, a bill that would provide funds to develop co-ops in low-income communities. He believes cooperatives create more democratic participation, encourage volunteerism, and help people realize the value of community-based organizations. In our interview, Peter discusses some of the history and philosophy behind co-ops, and how he came to understand their potential to bring people together.
How did you become interested in food co-ops? After college I moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan, where I had an important experience with a nearby co-op. I only lived there for one year, and at the beginning I didn’t think I was going to meet many people or have much engagement with the community. But I lived two blocks from the People’s Food Co-op, and shopped there every single day. I got to know a lot of people—fellow shoppers, cashiers, neighbors. It was a great social experience that led me to view co-ops not only as a business, but as a type of community center. Everyone shops for groceries, no doubt about that. You might as well have the place where you shop be this wonderful, community experience. I did a lot of cooking that year, and ate incredibly well.
What led you to become involved in the Kensington Community Food Co-op? After Ann Arbor, my wife and I moved here to Philadelphia and discovered KCFC. When you first move to a new neighborhood you always ask, “Where the heck am I going to buy my groceries?” Besides Greensgrow, I wasn’t satisfied with what was here, and I saw that the area had a real need for quality groceries. As soon as I stepped into KCFC, I began to understand all the opportunities both locally and nationally for cooperatives. I got exposure to the different conferences and organizations that exist to support them, like the National Cooperative Business Association, and the Keystone Development Center here in Pennsylvania.
How has your work expanded beyond KCFC? I had originally started my own business after college, doing consulting work for endangered species managements. Now I’m connecting my old career of consulting with my new passion, food co-ops. I’ve applied my experience in planning and operations to KCFC, and have made it my work to help the local co-op network become stronger. There’re a lot of start-ups besides us: South Philly Food Co-op, the Doylestown Food Co-op, the Ambler, Bethlehem, and Manayunk-Roxborough Co-ops. The Philadelphia Area Cooperative Alliance is an organization I help found with Bob Noble, a long time board member at Weavers Way, and a few people from the Energy Co-op. We haven’t incorporated yet, but our vision is to provide support services for existing co-ops, technical assistance to start-ups, and to encourage more awareness of the co-op model throughout the city and region.
Why is the co-op movement gaining so much momentum in Philadelphia? Philadelphia has a long history of cooperatives. Ben Franklin started the first official co-op in America in the form a fire insurance company. Insurance mutuals are considered cooperatives because they operate democratically—one member, one vote. That’s the basic principle of co-ops—shared ownership and democratic governance. Throughout history, there have always been these waves of cooperative developments responding to national crises, where people look inward to each other for answers. The Swarthmore Food Co-op, the 3rd oldest in the nation, came out of the Great Depression. Weavers Way and Mariposa were established in the 70’s during the Vietnam War. Then there’s what we have now. There are currently more start-ups trying to develop than there are existing co-ops. I would say that that’s in direct response to the economic crisis. I think it’s also due to a health crisis. The lack of access to healthy food is causing huge problems with obesity and diabetes. This has made people more concerned about environmental issues, buying organic, and supporting the local economy. So there’s a nexus of all these issues coming together, and people see the co-op model as a solution.
Other than having access to local, natural foods, what are the advantages of being a member of an organization like the Kensington Community Food Co-op? The experience I described in Ann Arbor is already in progress here. Co-op members get to know each other at meetings, happy hours, and different events. We’ve made all sorts of amazing connections, and these relationships wouldn’t have happened without the co-op bringing everyone together. To me that’s one of the best things a co-op offers the community—an opportunity for people to interact with each other. People have become friends, and are now working together towards something meaningful and positive. Thanks to this attitude, the Kensington Community Food Co-op continues to evolve, always with the vision that we’re going to have this grocery store. Now we’re so much closer than we’ve ever been, and it’s really exciting.
How will Kensington benefit from having a co-op? We want our area to develop economically, and to make it a better place to live. Co-ops are anchor businesses—wherever we end up there’s going to be growth around us. People will move in next door and open their own businesses, and that’s a wonderful thing. This type of expansion is happening right now in Kensington, and it’s unique because there aren’t a lot of big chains moving in. Instead we have an influx of interesting and creative entrepreneurs. What makes me so excited as a resident is the idea of being able to get all my amenities right here, just walking down the street. I already have my coffee shop, my bar, and my clothing store. Now I want my groceries.
Visit www.kcfc.coop for more information.
© Steven Sparber and Fishtown Spotlights, 2013. All rights reserved.