Why is DC a Food Co-op Desert?

By Edward Giefer, Office of Planning

What are the makings of a great urban neighborhood? Good schools, walkable tree-lined streets, neighbors you know, transit options, attractive houses and buildings … and a food co-op?

Well Washington, DC, doesn’t have many food cooperatives, and I’m curious to know why. My favorite food store is The Wedge in south Minneapolis, a place I shop at only about once a year now, since moving from Minnesota many years ago.

The Wedge

The Wedge is customer/member-owned: you can buy an annual membership and receive discounts on purchases throughout the year and a cut of any profits at year end; non-members are welcome to shop anytime. Closer to home, the Takoma Park Silver Spring Co-op in Maryland is also customer/member-owned, but co-ops can also be employee-owned, like Glut in Mt. Rainer, MD. In DC’s Mt. Pleasant the City Garden co-op is “labor-based” (customers must work a certain number of hours at the co-op) and is currently only open for three hours on Saturdays.

(photo credit: Glut)

(photo credit: Glut)

Food co-ops generally have a focus on foods that are local, organic, natural, whole grain, unique, and offered in bulk bins, at prices that are often lower than you would find at for-profit supermarkets. Whether they are customer- or employee-owned, co-ops foster a strong sense of local involvement and investment, and a commitment to ensuring success: customers/members, not a corporate office or a focus group, decide what should be on the shelves in their local store and what would sell well.

And co-ops also often boast a broader mission – The Wedge, for example, has philanthropic and educational components, and owns a small farm which they invite the community to visit. These outreach activities (along with low low prices on lentils!) have endeared this 40-year old store to its community, and it has become a treasured neighborhood asset.

In recent years, DC has seen several new retail food stores open in DC, including Wal-Mart, and maybe a Wegman’s is in our future. But all of them are for-profit, more or less traditional grocery stores, and most are headquartered outside of DC and operate nationally with little product variation from store-to-store.

Are there reasons that there are so few food co-ops in DC currently? Would you support a food co-op in your neighborhood? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

16 thoughts on “Why is DC a Food Co-op Desert?

  1. The reason DC has fewer Co-Ops than Minneapolis is two-fold.

    The first is the long-standing cooperative tradition in the upper Midwest. The inspiration came from the Grange movement during the Progressive Era. There used to be co-ops for everything, and self-improvement lending libraries, and tool sharing programs, credit unions, land grant universities, communal housing, unionized industrial labor… The upper Midwest saw these as weapons they could deploy against the corporate giants to level the playing field. This tradition never took root in DC.

    The second reason is that co-op food stores acquired a taint of the Hippie counterculture that poisoned them for many people. The few old-school co-ops in the DC area still maintain some aspects of that counterculture birth. Glut in Mount Rainer is still housed in a building that has not been updated since 1980 and maintains a groovy vibe. The TPSS Co-op in Takoma Park has periodic internecine battles over the “right” products to carry. TPSS nearly didn’t survive the transition from a vegetarian to all products co-op for example. Of course neither of these stores is a true co-op in the sense that you can still find in the Midwest, where being a member gives you the ability to buy wholesale or obligates you to some labor in the store in exchange for a discount. Instead they operate like most modern co-ops (like The Wedge* or Seward Co-Op in Minneapolis) where you get some discounts unavailable to non-members. Anyway, in prim and professional DC, populated by the very epitome of the establishment and with a strongly southern inflected culture, this kind of hippie rebellion only appealed in a few places, like Takoma, where they pride themselves on not being like the rest of the region.

    *Wedge is not really in south Minneapolis, I would say you have to be south of Powderhorn or the Lake Harriet to be “south”.

    • @Alger thanks for your comments. Is my Minneapolis rust showing? Better to have said The Wedge is south of downtown. “DC Neighborhood Boundaries” would be a good future OP-inions post, guaranteed to receive a lot of feedback!

  2. I would love to see a food co-op somewhere easy to get to in the city. When I moved here from Oregon I was shocked at how hard it is to find food sold in bulk bins and most of the whole grains (rolled barley, spelt, wheat) that I like to use for granola. I would definitely support a food co-op in SW where I live.

    • @DC thanks for your comment. You link to a search on “City Garden Co op,” which I included and linked to in my post. Care to share more with us about DC’s other “underground” co-ops? Sounds like several readers would be interested to know. Thanks.

      • I’d be interested….I would leave my email but don’t wanna break any rules. If there are any aside from city garden that are “underground” I’d love to know.

      • I asked around and they may have stopped running once farmers markets took hold- the emails I had for them bounced. These were more like Buyers clubs and CSAs where one farmer would drop stuff off at someone’s house and then we’d sort through it and create shares. A lot of the places started delivering, like Green Mountain Dairy(?). CSAs were really big, but one drought year and forget it, I’m no longer interested.

        The storefronts I went to were Bethesda Co-Op, Glut, Everlasting Life and TPSS.

        Most food co-ops can afford to pay about $12-24k per year in rent. I looked into purchasing a restaurant recently and the building owner wanted $7k per month rent. I was estimating 3000 sales per month, so, over $2 per sale to the landlord? Not interested. The area is too expensive to support co-ops at $7k per month rent.

        People should just start their own buyers club w/ a farmer and a winter distributor like Tuscarora.

  3. I would LOVE for there to be a food coop, and I would play an active role. DC gives public land to big box stores like Walmart, while smaller stores are forced to compete in one of the most expensive real estate markets in the country. It would be WONDERFUL if DC provided some public support to an inclusive, accessible food coop — which, as you rightly pointed, out could foster community involvement and support a broader social and environmental mission. Thank you for writing this piece.

    • Having more co-ops in DC would be great, Allison! As I’ve posted elsewhere, there are community-supported agriculture (CSA) endeavors in and around the city. You can sign up for a subscription to a farm’s produce; you’ll wind up paying less than other people and generally receive top-quality food in return. There are also a lot of farmer’s markets in various DC neighborhoods.

  4. I am spearheading the establishment of a worker-owned co-op bakery in Arlington. I’m looking for co-founders at this point, so anyone who’s interested in helping to make it reality should definitely check out the website.

    • @Dan Kaufman thanks for your comment. Glad you found this post, glad I visited your web site! Hope I can buy great bread and pastries from you in the future.

  5. I’d be fine with a food co-op in my neighborhood. But rents are so high it would probably be too expensive for me to be a member. And places where rents are cheaper would be a pain for me to travel to. I’ll just keep going to my local farmers’ market, planting a garden, and getting the rest of my groceries from the neighborhood supermarket.

  6. I really really wish there was a food co-op in my 16thStHeights/Brightwood neighborhood. Based on the square footage of Glut, we definitely have space for one. In fact, the site of the recent tragic murder of Mr. James Oh, Gold Corner Market & Deli, is an *ideal* spot for one, in the sense that there is plentiful space, a huge neighborhood of people to buy food who typically have to travel a half-mile or more to get what they want, and perhaps even an opportunity that stems from the murderous tragedy itself.

    Years ago, I contacted various local co-ops and national organizations, curious as to how such things start, and I was generally told that starting a food co-op these days is a daunting and expensive undertaking that can take years.

  7. On the other side of the river, St. Paul’s Mississippi Market is a dynamic food coop, looking forward to breaking ground on their 3rd store this fall. Buzzard Point development may be the perfect opportunity for a brand new coop.

  8. As Alger pointed out, the Takoma Park/Silver Spring Co-op has a lot of infighting. But according to a good friend of mine who worked there for years, TPSS is just really poorly run. General Managers hired to run the store often have little or no experience and last a year or two at most. People voted from working on the floor into positions of supervising other workers are often voted into place, without much thought about their fitness. Basic inventory and accounting procedures are barely practiced.

    And that infighting? It’s not just about basic mission considerations such as whether to stay vegetarian. There are many cliques amongst workers on the floor.

    I’d agree with Alger that the “epitome of establishment” conformism of DC doesn’t encourage a true co-op, although I’m not sure that this city has a “strongly southern inflected culture.” DC is a lot like junior high: people fall quickly into line because they don’t want to be seen as a loner or a social misfit. At some point, an off-beat or “counterculture” trend may reach critical mass and become cool (like yoga), but working at a co-op to get wholesale prices on purchases is likely too “working-class” for people in Northwest to do.

    It might also be a matter of rents. There are a number of farmer’s markets in DC now, but they’re typically Saturday or Sunday morning-only events taking place in parking lots and parks. Some markets resembling co-ops, such as Glen’s Garden Market and Each Peach Market, have to charge high prices for their goods because their landlords are squeezing them. Regular, full-time co-ops may not be economically viable in trendy areas of DC.

    There are a number of community-supported agriculture endeavors in and around DC. Mike Pappas is co-owner of Eco Farms in Lanham, MD and offers CSA subscriptions to his farm’s produce. Mike is also a really great pottery teacher at Hinckley Pottery in Adams-Morgan, btw! Here’s an interview with him by another former student:

    http://hellocraft.com/2011/08/craft-idol-mike-pappas/

  9. I’ve had a few conversations with other locals about organizing a co-op; I was the finance director for a start-up urban co-op in Chicago just before moving here. Many have agreed that there’s a market niche and ample available capital (e.g., National Co-op Bank is headquartered in Crystal City, and crowdfunding is very popular locally).

    However, retailing is all about location, and I don’t know of any ideal locations where one could both aggregate that widely dispersed demand, and also service a relatively high-density “food desert.” For example: a few years ago, an organizing committee for a co-op along H St. NE disbanded. Now, H St. is bracketed by three supermarkets, with plans for at least two more. Companies like Giant and Safeway didn’t leave holes in their coverage of DC, and smaller firms like Yes! have been pretty aggressive about identifying “up and coming” neighborhoods. EOTR’s grocery market is under-served, but I personally don’t know enough about the lay of the land to pinpoint particular locations which have high customer traffic.

    BTW, the Upper Midwest is definitely an outlier when it comes to co-op culture. There’s a reason why Minnesota alone has a “DFL Party” where the rest of us just have Democrats.

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