The Death and Life of a Neighborhood Cooperative

The problem of de facto all-white spaces was not news to me: I had spent a lot of time with it in the last year, when I learned that achieving community integration is deliberate and ongoing work

— like democracy, it is more verb than noun. I learned this for myself as a worker-member-owner of the Lefferts Community Food Co-op (LCFC), which was located at 324 Empire Boulevard between Rogers and Bedford. The co-op was established in 2007 as an offshoot of Prospect Lefferts Gardens Community Supported Agriculture (PLG CSA), with grants from New York City’s FRESH program and the Park Slope Food Co-op (PSFC). In addition to their weekly farm shares of fresh fruits and vegetables, members of the PLG CSA wanted to have access to more locally-sourced staples, and a co-op seemed the best way to provide that access. As I write this essay, the store’s gate, beautifully painted by India LoFaso, is still there.

Photo by Nancy Treuber

One day during my shift at the co-op, I heard two passersby say to each other in reference to our storefront, “Co-op, bah! That’s gentrification.”

It didn’t matter that our store consisted of a few free fridges and buckets of beans: if part of the community perceived us to be gentrifiers, and if our presence was actively being used to promote the processes of gentrification, then we were in fact gentrifiers. It was only months later, as we were first facing closure, that LCFC members realized we could and should have used our voices and the media to actively push back against the gentrification narrative, seizing the opportunity to redefine and reintroduce the co-op while at the same time refusing complicity with the forces rapidly changing the neighborhood. In addition to our cultural insularity, we faced issues common to all fledgling co-ops reliant on volunteer labor rather than permanent paid staff. Though we accepted EBT, inconsistent training meant that not all of our cashiers knew how to run the cards, potentially excluding members enrolled in SNAP. And though we had a policy whereby members could waive their work requirement and designate others to shop for them, we had no system of remote ordering or delivery for those unable to get to the store or carry their groceries home, effectively excluding some elderly and differently abled folks. Adding a Saturday shopping day proved to be logistically difficult as well, requiring at least 16 additional cashiers to staff 8 new shifts per month.

As I spoke with Cheryl, I thought how we had missed an opportunity at LCFC. If we had known the neighborhood history, we could have hosted a reunion for CHFC members as a way of learning from them and, hopefully, recruiting them to our co-op.

With the benefit of their vision of food justice as well as their hindsight, LCFC might have moved forward in a way that was more community-centered than store-centered. But even though that opportunity was lost, more opportunities are on the horizon.

My experience at the co-op helped me realize how deficient my education has been, how limited my perspective, and how small my world.

As CEANYC taught me, white-supremacy culture is not just about blatant forms of racism, but also about specific practices and attitudes that maintain whiteness as a position of power and as the default perspective. I now understand that if I want to eschew this perspective — engrained and enforced by my schooling, segregation, and the media — I have to actively do the work.

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Cooperative Economics Alliance of NYC

Cooperative Economics Alliance of NYC

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The Cooperative Economics Alliance of New York City (CEANYC) strengthens and expands community-led, democratically-controlled initiatives in NYC.