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Challenges and Opportunities for Food Co-ops

October 21, 2010

Brooklyn Based reported today on the efforts of several bands of Brooklynites to launch food co-ops in order to increase access to healthy, sustainably-raised–and cheap–food in their communities. The three new co-ops–in Fort Greene, Bushwick, and Bay Ridge–will follow in the footsteps of the love-it or hate-it Park Slope Food Co-op, which has been a neighborhood institution since 1973.

In reading about the significant obstacles these co-ops face in trying to get themselves up and running, I wondered if policymakers had missed an opportunity to facilitate access to healthy food in other neighborhoods. Efforts to increase access to healthy food in low-income communities has largely been focused on encouraging large grocery stores to locate there, perhaps because research has shown that “the biggest factor contributing to higher grocery costs in poor neighborhoods is that large chain stores, where prices tend to be lower, are not located in these neighborhoods.” For example, New York City’s Food Retail Expansion to Support Health (FRESH), an initiative of Mayor Bloomberg’s Five-Borough Economic Opportunity Plan, “promotes the establishment and retention of neighborhood grocery stores in underserved communities by providing zoning and financial incentives to eligible grocery store operators and developers.” So far, FRESH benefits have lured Western Beef and Foodtown to open new grocery stores in the Bronx.

The FRESH program could be expanded to provided similar incentives and assistance to induce communities to launch food co-ops. For example, New York State could expand the eligibility requirements of the New York Healthy Food and Healthy Communities Fund, which currently provides grants of $5,000 to $500,000 and loans of $250,000 to $5,000,000 to national and regional grocery chains, individual grocery retail outlets and neighborhood food stores, to include food co-ops. These grants and loans could provided needed capital to help fledgling food co-ops open up a storefront–currently, the biggest obstacle  facing the three new co-ops in Brooklyn.

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