After eight years of planning, a grocery store cooperative that will serve low- and middle-income Black residents in Central Brooklyn is now hunting for a location to open a store. Organizers are recruiting members for the Central Brooklyn Food Coop, which aims to make fresh and affordable food accessible to residents of color in the gentrifying neighborhoods of Bed-Stuy and Crown Heights.
The effort began in 2013, incubated by the Brooklyn Movement Center, a Black-led community organizing group in Bed-Stuy. Residents concerned about the effects of gentrification conducted a survey of their Central Brooklyn neighbors in 2014 that showed people living in the area traveled an average of a mile and a half to do their shopping.
Central Brooklyn is home to some of New York City’s biggest “food deserts,” neighborhoods without traditional grocery stores, which research has tied to poor health outcomes like obesity. The area’s zip codes, where median incomes are some of the lowest in the city, also represent “food swamps,” where unhealthy food options dominate.
With the pandemic and the racial uprising after George Floyd’s death focusing attention on everyday inequities Black people face, projects like the Central Brooklyn Food Coop gained new attention.
“We’ve seen dramatic member recruitment in some of these co-ops as they’ve put themselves forward as ‘we’re a solution to this,’ ” said Stuart Reid, executive director of the Food Co-op Initiative, an organization that helps new co-ops get started.
Reid said inquiries to his organization from communities of color interested in forming a co-op have increased in the last five years, and in the last year in particular. Groups in Detroit and North Flint, Michigan, Dayton, Ohio and Louisville, Kentucky have either opened stores or are in the process of developing co-ops in predominantly Black neighborhoods.
The Central Brooklyn Food Coop will be collectively managed by member-owners, who invest $150 in the co-op and will work two to three hours a month in the store. There is a deferred payment plan available for members experiencing financial hardship due to COVID-19, and a reduced rate for those receiving income assistance.
Founding members decided to require shifts after studying different co-ops and determining that member labor would keep food low-cost. Only members will be able to shop at the store, a model also used at New York City co-ops in Park Slope and Clinton Hill, although uncommon among food co-ops nationwide.
Food cooperatives that open in food deserts are more likely to stick around than other stores, according to a study that analyzed which planned supermarkets closed, stayed open or were canceled in food deserts since 2000. Catherine Brinkley, an associate professor at University of California, Davis, was surprised by the study’s results, which showed that community-driven stores, and co-ops in particular, were more likely to succeed than other projects.
“The community wanted them, the community fund-raised for them and those models were very sensitive to community needs,” Brinkley said.
The co-op, originally slated to open in 2020, currently has 212 invested members, according to Ashleigh Eubanks, food justice manager at Riseboro, an organization supporting the co-op. They hope to sign up 500 members before opening a store. The pandemic paused the search for a store location, but members are now talking to real estate agents and developers to find a spot the group can afford with the $52,109 they raised on Kickstarter last year.
During the delay of this pandemic year, co-op members voted to fundraise for a food delivery effort called Hold Down BK, which allowed them to buy and distribute groceries to long-time Brooklyn residents.
“We were giving them groceries and saying, ‘this is not a pantry, this food was purchased by the co-op and we would love for you to be a part of it,’ ” said Shaquana Boykin, a food sovereignty organizer working on the co-op through the Brooklyn Movement Center.
At a new member orientation held on Zoom on March 7, Boykin asked all potential members to describe what they would like to see inside a grocery store owned by their community. People mentioned abundance, their “homeboys,” and culturally-driven food.
No firm choices have yet been made about what the co-op will have on offer. “However,” Eubanks wrote in an email, “we do know that we want to support other Black-owned businesses.”
One product of last summer’s protests and national reckoning with racism has been an increased interest by non-Black people in joining the co-op, according to Eubanks.
“A lot of people want to be in solidarity with folks in Black-led projects,” she said. “People don’t know how to do that because we don’t live in a society that centers Black leadership, especially collective leadership in Black communities.”
At the new member orientation, Boykin asked attendees who were white or newcomers to Brooklyn to reflect on why they wanted to join the co-op and whether their presence was the best way to support a Black-led organization. Non-Black members are welcome, Eubanks said in an interview, but the goal is for the co-op to be led by its Black members.
The planned food co-op is part of the Central Brooklyn Food Democracy Project, which trained founders of three food co-op businesses owned by people of color this fall. Sisters 3 Tea, one incubated business, will sell sparkling tea when the co-op grocery store opens. The brand was inspired by drinks that the eponymous three Yarde sisters drank growing up as first-generation Caribbean-Americans in Brooklyn.
“More fresh foods will be a big change and a welcome change for a lot of people who are not able to access other co-ops or other natural food stores, or maybe just don’t have those options in their local grocery,” said Sisters 3 Tea founding worker-owner Christine Yarde. “It’s important for us to have love and cooperation and respect in our co-op.”