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How South Philly Food Co-op used grassroots organizing to attract over 600 members

By Maggie Heffernan / CONTRIBUTOR   Dec. 16, 2016

The cooperative recently announced its permanent location and is set to open next year.

Opening up a grocery cooperative can be an arduous process. But thanks to a dedicated board of directors, South Philly Co-op has amassed over 600 member-households since forming in 2010.

And that’s all without a physical store.

In 2017, the co-op will finally have a permanent space where it can sell local products and continue to implement its food-centric educational curriculum. After a three-year search, the board of directors shared last month that the co-op’s future marketplace will be the ground floor of 2031 S. Juniper St., a 3,400-square-foot space located near the intersection of three commercial corridors.

“Passyunk Avenue, Snyder Avenue and Broad Street all feed into the space, which was a big sell for us,” said Director at Large Leigh Goldenberg. “We were originally looking for a slightly bigger floor plan, but the centrality of the building and the easy access to public transportation were too good to pass up.”

How did the co-op get so many members before establishing concrete places to grow, store and sell its food? According to Goldenberg, the founding members generated interest through countless nights of tabling at local events, hosting educational talks and food tastings and seeking guidance from the greater co-op community.

“In the beginning, we visited lots of civic association meetings and other events to gauge whether or not there were people who wanted a co-op in South Philly,” said Goldenberg, who signed up to be a member in 2011 after learning of the initiative at a concert in Gold Star Park. “After a solid amount of people were on board, we then started organizing our own events and fundraisers at nearby restaurants, libraries and any other venue we could find.”

It’s a familiar story: Kensington Community Food Co-op — eight years in the making and set to open sometime next year, too — amassed its 750+ members through a regular pop-up marketplace, community meetings and a beer garden series.

Christy Santoro, who has been a member of food co-ops wherever she’s lived, saw joining the South Philly Co-op as a way to connect with new people in her neighborhood.

“As a midwife, I see myself as a resource to my community in terms of connecting like-minded people and sharing information about healthy resources, which often centers around food,” said Santoro, who is also a Shop South Philly business member, in an email. “The Co-op shares those goals and values and I’m proud to say that many of my South Philly client families are also members!”

SPFC’s largest annual fundraiser has consistently been the South Philly Garden Tour, an exploration of the neighborhood’s private and community gardens. In 2015, the tour featured 29 gardens as well as many sustainability-minded sponsors including Ultimo Coffee, Miss Rachel’s Pantry and Urban Jungle. The event was also supported by fellow Philadelphia co-ops Weaver’s Way and Mariposa, both of which have been invaluable to the South Philly Co-op as it has taken steps towards its opening, Goldenberg said.

“The co-op community is very cooperative,” she joked. “The Kensington Community Food Co-op was actually neck and neck with us in terms of progress at various points in the past few years, so we’ve been able to exchange useful and relevant advice with them.”

The exact opening date of the future marketplace is yet to be set, as the building is currently undergoing construction. As progress is made, however, the board of directors will zero in on a general manager, places where they will source the co-op’s products and ways in which the marketplace can enhance the co-op’s mission of empowering its community through ownership, education and collaboration.

“I enjoy meeting other people in my neighborhood who are also passionate about healthy food, and economic ownership of our own local business,” said Santoro. “It’s thrilling to know that we’re joining together to make this dream a reality.”


Read more at Generosity.