Wednesday, 3 June 2015 | 24 comments

Strawberry sorbet is easier to make than a grocery store

I’m on the board of directors of a local start-up food co-op. We live in a small, rural, not-very-densely populated community. We have no grocery store.

Despite some recent efforts on our town to lure in commercial activity, the big chain stores just won’t come here. When they plug our income and population numbers into their algorithm, they don’t project that our area could make them the profit that they need. We’re not talking fancy, high-end grocery stores here: my town can’t even seal the deal on a Kroger.

So, four years ago, some people got together, decided that they were tired of buying butter from the 7-11, and founded a cooperative. Consumer co-op models vary, but they all come down to a few basic principles: co-ops are community-owned by members who have a vested share in the business. They’re run democratically, and all profits are either reinvested in the store or paid out in dividends to members.

Seems like a humble goal, right? A small full service grocery store. How quaint. Our area has has rich agricultural heritage, so we can picture the store being an outlet for locally produced stuff as well as dry goods or other grocery sundries (right now, most of our local producers take their wares to the big Saturday farm markets in the ‘burbs). The cooperative model is appealing, too, in a place that fails to draw in the big box stores, but could possibly support a store with a smaller footprint.

Fast forward to now. We have about 450 members, which, although it may sound small, is equivalent to about one-quarter of our town’s population. This represents a huge amount of grassroots organizing, all by volunteers. We have good support, at the community level, from local producers, from our town government, and even from other communities.

This is no cutesy Kickstarter campaign, though. Rural food co-ops are very rare, and for good reason. Grocery stores have a notoriously small profit margin: around 3%. And that’s for the big chain stores, the ones who have economies of scale and who are in the business of making grocery stores. And who are not run by a bunch of volunteers. Some of the most successful or famous co-ops (think of Park Slope Food Co-op, in Brooklyn) are in urbanized areas, where you can rely on population density to support the business.

But here is the best and worst thing about cooperative business models: if you don’t have enough community support, you simply won’t go forward. Since members have a vested interest in co-op success, you have to be able to bank (literally and figuratively) heavily on that success as you move forward, because you have an obligation to them.

So we’re at a pivotal point right now. We’ve done our market studies and we have really scary financial spreadsheets and we have some money in the bank. We’re working on finding a site out of some of the very few commercially zoned spaces in town. We paid for a well known co-op consultant to help us plan.

Anyway, all of this background and throat clearing* is to preface my main point, which is to say that: I’ve wanted to write about the co-op over the past four years of being involved with it, but I find it difficult, because I’m so close to the nitty gritty of it; so close to the grind of organizing and constantly trying to convince people that having a grocery store won’t happen without them. In thinking about sales per square foot and lease-or-buy scenarios. In responding to the question, “when are you opening, anyway?” It doesn’t make for pretty pictures of vegetables. In fact, most of our co-op photos are people sitting around tables at meetings and hunched over laptops.

It’s increasingly clear to me that the more pleasant tasks of food, agriculture, and systems of food distribution are not the ones that create change. The long-haul, much less glamorous work of alternate means of production and distribution is really difficult, and looks much more like business or advocacy or (yawn) research than it does like picking up a quart of June strawberries from the roadside stand.

My town has no stop lights. Our main businesses are places like a 7-11, a gun shop, a pizza joint, and a restaurant called Bonnie’s Country Kitchen. When we did an initial market survey, we found out that a lot of people do their grocery shopping at the Super Walmart that is 17 miles away. We are a strange pocket of small-town farmers and commuters and families on the edge of a county that, at its opposite end, houses Dulles Airport and government contractors. We are not the hippest place in the world, but we aren’t totally distanced from reality.

Do I think that having a community-owned grocery store will be an asset to our area? Absolutely, and that’s why I dedicate my time to it.

But I am also driven by anxiety: if we can’t succeed in an area that is reasonably affluent, white, and has plenty of people interested in having a local food outlet, what chance does a community who looks different than us have? What chance does anyone have?

My community and this work is unique in some ways, but our situation is probably more common than we realize—it’s just a story that’s seldom told. Access is a multifaceted issue, and while availability of food starts with production, distribution is important, too.

I think a lot about how if success stories all look and sound the same, then they’re probably not all that successful. The world is big and diverse, so if the narrative starts looking similar from place to place, if all the magazine articles are about rooftop gardens and microgreens, then there must be something we’re missing. This is how I feel about food and food culture nowadays. We are so one-note, so addicted to the same narratives, over and over again. It’s a little exhausting, and creates an environment where we may miss opportunities.

But I’m willing to keep trying to discern the different stories, to imagine what it might look like for our little town, with all its idiosyncrasies, to support a grocery store. We need more people who will buy into our vision, and I’m not sure who all of them are yet. But we keep working, keep moving forward, because if not that, what else?

In the meantime, it’s June, and there is strawberry sorbet.



Strawberry sorbet

Adapted just barely from Deborah Madison’s Local Flavors
This strawberry sorbet is just strawberries and sugar. Okay, and a little lemon. Still, it’s a frozen dessert with much less work involved then full-on ice cream. I rarely make sorbet, and am always surprised by how good it is. A nice way to enjoy the season’s first strawberries.

You’ll need

  1. 1 quart ripe strawberries (for me, by weight this was about 1 1/2 pounds after being hulled (685 grams))
  2. 2/3 cup sugar
  3. Zest and juice of one lemon, tangerine, or orange
  4. Fresh mint leaves, optional

Directions

  1. Wash and hull the strawberries. (To hull, stick a paring knife into the top of each berry and cut in a circle around the leaves, removing both leaves and hull. This way you don’t lose the strawberries’ pretty red “shoulders”.)
  2. In a saucepan, combine sugar, juice, and zest. Bring just to a boil and cook, stirring, until the sugar is fully dissolved (if you rub a drop of the syrup between your fingers, you should feel no grains of sugar). Remove from heat.
  3. Purée the strawberries in a food processor or with an immersion blender in a high sided bowl.
  4. Stir the syrup into the strawberry purée.
  5. Process the mixture in your ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s instructions, usually around 15-20 minutes.
  6. The sorbet will be set but very soft. It can be eaten immediately, or smoothed into a sealed container and frozen to be scooped later.
  7. If freezing, remove the container in which the sorbet is frozen from the freezer 10 minutes before serving to soften.
  8. Garnish with mint if desired.

* I owe Cheryl Sternman Rule for giving me the perfect language to describe the hmphing and unnecessary description that goes on in the first few paragraphs of a lot of writing. Thanks, Cheryl!

Tagged

§ 24 responses to Strawberry sorbet is easier to make than a grocery store

  • Social media, blogs, magazine spreads always seems to conceal hard work, don’t they? But I prefer honesty along with picturesque photos so thank you for that. And on the same note, I think the long hours of research and tireless work of advocacy along with the immense enjoyment of farm fresh strawberries — because at some point we have to enjoy life too, right? — makes for real change. The two together, not just the latter.

    It’s hard to know how to write about it though. I’m a child advocate for unaccompanied minors yet all I can seem to write about on my blog is beauty products or the sprouting of magnolia trees. Strange, but I think it’s because like you, I need perspective before I can write about it in any way that holds any real value.

    Anyway, kudos to you! For the work and also, sharing it with us.

  • Jen

    Hi Sara, I’ve been lurking around here for a little while and I’m always stirred by your posts. You have such a unique perspective, it’s like you say something I wasn’t able to articulate myself…a sort of practical idealism on food matters, and life. Your adventure with starting a co-op just reminds me how lucky I am to live in an area that has a grocery store every block…but the fact that you live somewhere where 1/4 of the population is dedicated to a co-op makes me a little jealous too. Argh! So many contradictions! Well, anyway I’m just about to go into the big scary world (well, dip my toes in–about to start college) and I hope I can face the world as well as you have faced it.

  • Amen sister. Advocacy and research is the fun stuff! (At least for me — what I spend most of my time studying…) I completely agree with your take on the food culture lexicon and admire your dedication to the nitty gritty of organizing. I want to hear more about this adventure as it develops and I’ll be betting on you and your co-conspirators getting it done. I was a member of Karma co-op in Toronto for many years and they’ve gone through some ups and downs, even though they’re in a big city (there the issue is competition and ‘lack of need’ – sort of the opposite problem from yours). But to date, they’ve pulled through. Co-ops are a great place to meet other people in your community and volunteer. You inspire me to find something big to commit to in my new community! Godspeed!

  • Chloe Winther

    Hey! I’m an urban girl myself, but I’ve spent time in some small towns with successful coops. They might be inspirational for you- the Plainfield Food Co-op, in Plainfield, VT, and the High Falls Food Co-op in High Falls, NY (which I think is about the size of yours). Both beautiful stores in great communities!
    Good luck!

  • I’m always inspired by your honesty and uncanny ability to bring real, relevant issues to light while never being preachy or boring. As a volunteer in a large organization dedicated to helping people (I help run a Buddhist center that offers courses on philosophy and meditation), I’ve gone through a similar realization about the different between drinking lots of chai while talking about love and higher knowledge and actually getting stuff done so that people have access to a place and teachings that help them gain some kind of insight and balance in their lives. I’m starting to think that most things that make a difference in this world are the opposite of what glamorous magazine spreadsheets about changing the world would have us think; really it’s just a lot of hard work, commitment, and resilience.

    Good luck with the coop! We definitely need more functional alternative models of food distribution in this world. Go get ’em!

  • VeggieAnnie

    Hey, Sarah! Great blog! Hello from a member of the Board of The Common Market Co-op – your friend and neighbor. We’re cheering for you guys, and we’re open to ways we can help you. Cooperative Principle Number Six: Co-ops helping co-ops.

  • Zach Pruckowski

    Confirmed that that strawberry sorbet is delicious. So is that tomato stuff you put on the burgers. Clearly I need to have meetings on your side of the county and randomly text at 5pm more often.

    I just want to point out one critical error however – Lovettsville does in fact have a stoplight, it is decoration for the pizza place. :-P

    Also I’m now a co-op member, so please lead us well.

    >>”I’m starting to think that most things that make a difference in this world are the opposite of what glamorous magazine spreadsheets about changing the world would have us think; really it’s just a lot of hard work, commitment, and resilience.”

    THIS times a million! So many folks like to sit around and talk or “strategize” about how to change the world, when what’s needed usually isn’t talk, but action.

  • Thank you for sharing this. So much of changing our “system” away from the status quo is not pretty, nor is it romantic. Thank you for bring this to light in such an eloquent and honest way. Keep up the good work, and if you haven’t already, you might check out the Good Food Jobs newsletters (http://www.goodfoodjobs.com/newsletter.html) –they often speak directly to these issues and remind me often to stay positive and keep fighting. :)

  • I spent a summer as a member of the Park Slope Food Co-Op and loved it so deeply, and feel so under it’s spell that when the time came- I marched back to sleepy Claremont, California armed with ideas of how we could have a co-op of our own. How we could give ourselves and each other access to good food without having to spend Whole Foods prices, or trek to Super King or Vons for bottle of milk. The reality was exactly as you describe- meetings, endless, dull, frustrating meetings, with simply not enough people coming through and putting in the work to make it all come together.
    I don’t want to admit that small, relatively suburban and mostly white towns are much, much harder to introduce a food co-op into, but that’s definitely what it feels like. But I’d also like to be wrong, and hope that the next year will change everything and we’ll have a co-op after all.
    Thank you for sharing as always, and staying clear of the one-note narrative. I think maybe places like the People’s Grocery and other such co-ops that are in food deserts and amidst suburbia and urban sprawl will be so interesting to learn from…

  • You always get right to the meat of things, Sarah. Thank you. xx

  • Kathryn

    I hope the co-op comes to life! I’ve been a member of a co-op in a couple of different places that I’ve lived and it’s been great! I love that the co-op of which I am currently a member is really invested in making local and sustainably raised/produced products accessible to everyone in the community, regardless of income/socio-economic level. It doesn’t reach everyone unfortunately but it does make an effort to contribute to food access and security within the community. I’ll keep my fingers crossed for you and your co-op.

  • Carol

    We have a thriving, independent food co-op in our small town on the Olympic Peninsula in WA state. It began as a food buying group several decades ago. Have you thought about starting with a food buying group? I think the keys to our success have been the prevailing progressively liberal attitudes of most of our members, the support of young, local farmers (the co-op tries to provide local alternatives to much of the produce, etc., sold, and the market for organic products in our neck of the woods. Our co-op expanded about 10-15 years ago to a new space and is looking for a place to expand even more in the future, as the membership has continued to grow, and we already need a bigger space. Even so, it is my understanding that most of the profit made by the co-op is generated by the sale of value added products and items in their deli, keeping the business and employees afloat. Growing such a co-op over time has been fairly straight forward in this community. I wish you the best in your endeavors. Supporting the place that you envision will take a lot of energy and commitment but will be well worth it in the end. It is worth it to look at support from other co-ops. I know the largest food co-op in our general area, Puget Consumers Co-op in Seattle, may have some grant $ or other opportunities. If you can, it’s worth it to network with successful co-op ventures in other communities.

    • Thanks, Carol! We know of your co-op. And of lots of co-ops from the ’70s that started as buying clubs…tends to not be such a good model nowadays, at least according to the co-op experts. It’s been really interesting learning about different models, and about the differences in starting up that older co-ops faced than they do now. Co-ops love helping each other and we have one in a nearby city that is helping us out :) Thanks again. –S

  • Amy

    Nothing pithy or helpful to add, just wanted you to know that this post really has me thinking, even for someone fortunate to live in a part of Baltimore that is well served by chain stores, independent grocers, and markets. Thank you for doing the unglamorous work, I wish you all success!

  • I love this post. Also – I plan to email you shortly as I’d love to know more about your work and possibly interview you (only if you or a colleague would be open to it) for a book project that I’m working on about Loudoun. Everything you say resonates so much with me, and I just simply would love to learn more about the work that you’re doing.

  • A perfect example of why this is the only food blog I actually READ anymore. You may not post often, but when you do it is always sure to be a beautiful combination of eloquence, sincerity, thought-provoking exposure to the possibilities and consequences inherent to our systems, and a rejoicing in things that are simply good.. Thank you!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

What's this?

You are currently reading Strawberry sorbet is easier to make than a grocery store at The Yellow House.

meta