Brooklyn organizers open first black-led grocery co-op in NYC – Subsequent Metropolis
A few weeks ago, the Central Brooklyn Food Co-op launched a Kickstarter campaign to open a brick and mortar location for the first black-run food cooperative in New York City. In less than a week, the cooperative hit its $ 25,000 goal. And after the fundraiser closes later this month, the organizers will work not only to secure a spot, but also to lay the groundwork for a network of worker and consumer owned food companies across Central Brooklyn
This rapid succession of events is the result of years of organization instigated by the Brooklyn Movement Center, a community organizing group based in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. About a year after it was founded in 2011, the organizers of the Brooklyn Movement Center came up with the idea of having “grub parties,” where members of the community would gather to break bread and talk about food justice. With the occasional potluck in local schools and the organization of spaces, the group discussed topics such as school lunches, denial of food to those affected by criminal justice, and the way food is related to environmental justice.
“It was a way to politicize people and create a common food awareness in Central Brooklyn,” recalls Mark Winston Griffith, general manager of the Brooklyn Movement Center. One topic kept popping up: limited access to affordable, fresh food and how community members could change that.
“It was around this time that we felt that a food cooperative would make sense, and it would make sense to organize people around the building of this institution,” he says.
Griffith co-founded the Brooklyn Movement Center as a black-run membership organization for low and middle income residents of Central Brooklyn. New York State identified the area with “measurably higher rates of obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure, limited access to healthy food or physical activity, high rates of violence and crime, large economic disparities due to unemployment and high poverty, and inadequate access to quality health and mental health services. ”
Despite these differences, the neighborhoods of Central Brooklyn are rapidly gentrifying. “As Central Brooklyn beautified, food choices became segmented,” Griffith explains. “New foods were being marketed to a younger, more middle-class, whiter constituency – that was very worrying for us.”
From the start, the vision was “a black-run food cooperative in the context of black neighborhood survival,” says Griffith. “We see ourselves as an anti-gentrification force,” adds Ina Solomon, an early member of the organization who now serves on the board of directors of the Central Brooklyn Food Co-op.
Early members describe the six years of organizing as intense, community-oriented work. “Not many people came with an existing understanding of how to organize or build the grocery store,” says Griffith. “[Securing] Money and trust became big issues. “Big questions were addressed together, such as defining the purchasing and membership model. (Ultimately, the organizers opted for a consumer-owned cooperative where each member holds a stake in the cooperative and helps cut operating costs through an investment fee and around three hours of monthly work.)
RiseBoro, a Brooklyn-based community organization, joined as an organizing partner earlier this year and hired staff, fundraising and marketing support. The partnership also helps achieve a larger goal for the organizers of the Central Brooklyn Food Co-op: “Building a new food economy in Central Brooklyn,” says Griffith.
With a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the team is developing the Central Brooklyn Food Democracy Project, a neighborhood food system of cooperative food companies that own and grow food, grow, procure, produce, store, package, distribute, and cater for.
The Central Brooklyn Food Co-op will be the “fundamental center” of this system, explains Bianca Bockman, food justice program director at Riseboro. RiseBoro employees have already supported the development of two workers’ cooperatives that intend to do business with the Central Brooklyn Food Co-op. The first is a Community Chef Coop who offers cooperative courses, cooking demonstrations and event catering for cooperative members. The second is Brooklyn Packers, a food packing and distribution service.
According to Bockman, the goal is to support at least six cooperative food businesses over the next four years, which could range from a city farm to food preparation. “We want to be responsive to where resources are, what people want to do, and where the need is – knowing what kind of business is benefiting our community,” she says.
But first, the Central Brooklyn Food Co-op needs to find a location – another challenge given the rising commercial rents in the area. The successful Kickstarter gives the organizers some leeway; They also set “stretch goals” to fund renovations, build meeting rooms and a demo kitchen, and develop community programs.
The hope is to open in early 2020. “The fact that it took so long could accuse us of being a bit tentative,” says Griffith. But he knows the challenges of opening and maintaining cooperatives and the importance it will play to the Central Brooklyn community. “This experimentation,” he adds, “comes from a desire to really get it right.”
Emily Nonko is a Brooklyn, New York-based reporter who writes on real estate, architecture, urban development, and design. Her work has been published in the Wall Street Journal, New York Magazine, Curbed, and other publications.