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.