Go Go Co-op

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #10 in October 2010]

We do not live in the same country we did ten years ago. The result of eight years of an administration that unabashedly prioritized corporate interests over those of citizens has done serious damage to the already fragile social safety net. We the people cannot rely on any outside body – federal, state, even local municipalities – to resolve the issues that impact our daily quality of life. Now more than ever, the improvements we seek will need to be by the people, for the people.

Our neighborhoods provide many structures that enable a better quality of life for the people that live within them. But proximity is not the same as community; community is an energy that exists among people. Those of us who believe in the idea of community understand that it is a deliberate construction. Cultivation of this energy requires an active decision and sustained, focused effort by groups of particular people – those who will not just talk, but do.

The Dill Pickle Food Co-op in Logan Square is not based on a new idea, but on tradition. Groups of people have been pooling resources to achieve a greater benefit than they could reach as individuals working for years. Chicago was home to the very first community-owned grocery store, the Hyde Park Food Co-op, which operated for 75 years. Today, organizing efforts to initiate food co-ops are springing up across the country, as individuals realize that by using the age-old idea of pooling resources, they will be able to meet a variety of specific community needs without reliance on the government or corporations.

Living in New York City prior to relocating to Chicago, I was lucky to have a tiny health food store around the corner from my apartment. Stuffed into the tiny 800 square foot storefront was an abundance of fruits,vegetables, healthy snacks, vitamins, spices, bulk foods, and fresh juices that I could not purchase at the 60,000 square foot grocery megaplex a few blocks away. It was easy to get used to eating well when it was so convenient and relatively inexpensive.

When Chicago became my home in 2001, I spent a great deal of time looking for the equivalent of that little health food store, and was astonished to find nothing like that around, and only one food co-op in the entire city.

The Pickle started with an email to 20 people I knew who I thought might be into it: “We can start from a basic level and grow it into an entity that serves multiple needs for us as a community – we can make it whatever we want, AND we get to buy good food cheap to boot, and that’s just to start. Let’s test the waters here . . . is it time to talk about getting a co-op going on the north side?” In the first week, 300 emails came back saying YES – so yes, it very obviously was time to get this community discussion started.

A meeting was called at the SpareRoom, an artists’ co-op in Humboldt Park. More than 40 people schlepped through January snow to talk about our need for organic, locally and sustainably produced food options. We said it: our children, our seniors, all of us are surrounded by small stores that sell junk food and low quality produce, fast food restaurants, and very few actual grocery stores. As a result, we are suffering from obesity, diabetes, asthma – all of which can be addressed, in part, with better nutrition. We need more jobs in our neighborhood. We need a store to go to where we can get healthy food options, where we can come together as a community, that will keep the profits in our neighborhood. What could a resource like this mean for our neighborhood? Nobody could have articulated that at that moment, but we all knew that whatever it was going to be, we wanted and were ready to work for it. That first meeting resulted in the formation of a steering committee, and an intentional organizing effort was born.

Logan Square was not technically designated a “food desert” in Mari Gallagher’s 2006 Chicago study, but depending on your location within the neighborhood, it can certainly feel like one. Large grocery chains and mid-sized independent grocers have closed at an alarming pace, leaving the community with a plethora of corner convenience stores offering very little by way of fresh produce or healthy food options. Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, Sunflower all took a pass on coming to the area, so we understood that we would need to do it ourselves.

Food politics have been an issue of interest in the Logan Square neighborhood for quite some time. While good nutrition clearly has a strong impact on health, other issues of justice come into play when you talk about food and food distributions processes. Some people are concerned about supporting local small farmers, or organic growing practices, or want to soften their environmental footprint by purchasing foods that do not need to be transported as far, finding that food fresher and more environmentally sound. Our general manager works to ensure a product mix that reflects these values on our shelves.

The cooperative business model is one that interests many people in our area as well. Americans have seen business after business close up shop and move out of an area, devastating local economies and, at times, wiping out the job prospects for the people who have lived and worked in these areas for generations. We recognized that opening a storefront food co-op rather than a buying club would enable us to provide jobs within to neighborhood residents and thus directly contribute to lowering unemployment rates.

And so it began. Meeting after meeting after meeting. Flyers, phone calls, emails, articles. We educated ourselves on the basics: What is a co-op? How do we start one? How is this group of well-intentioned but inexperienced non-grocers supposed to run a grocery store? What are these International Co-operative Principles we need to follow? Just before the store opened this past December, we came across the first start up budget projection: at that time, with that level of experience, we guessed it would take over a million dollars to open a store. Through hard work and some good luck, we did it for less than $150,000.

As we started to learn and gain steam, we learned that the co-operative network is stronger and bigger than we ever could have imagined. This very local effort to develop an intentional, community-owned grocery store was in fact part of a much broader movement. Co-op folk across the country reached out to us, offering their resources, their knowledge, and their encouragement. The advice and guidance of this wider network of co-operative supporters and experts across the country connecting with the doers of our neighborhood is what brought this store to fruition. Without that connection and that current of energy from the wider co-op community, the Dill Pickle would have remained just a good idea.

Refocusing creative energy from artistic to community organizing efforts is not that unusual – I find that many community activists come from a creative background, and vice versa. The ability to envision new structures serves the community organizer in the same way it serves the artist: it results in a plan from which something tangible will be developed. But the blueprint is not the house, and ideas don’t by themselves make the world a better place. Tangible skills need to be in place in order to move these ideas ahead.

For example, one obstacle that the Dill Pickle faced from the beginning was a lack of Spanish speakers among the core group of organizers, which negatively impacted our outreach to the Latino members of our community. The good intentions of our group did not overcome the lack of language skills, and despite some rudimentary efforts, the co-op was launched without full representation of our community. Lesson learned; the impact of the decisions we made in the past is clearer now, and with the benefit of hindsight, I don’t think we would make all those same decisions again. We are fortunate to now have a good number of Spanish speakers as active co-op members, enabling us to prioritize relationship building and partnership development with the Latino community. With these skills in place, we are now working hard to make up for lost time on outreach, but recognize that we missed a big opportunity to build inclusiveness in from the ground up.

Every word of this sentence matters: We made this beginning together. The Dill Pickle is much bigger than just the 1400 square feet of retail space the store occupies. Our store is open and people are shopping, buying foods that they couldn’t get locally six months ago. They are changing their eating habits to positively impact their health, because now they are able to access healthy food options without having to travel a significant distance from where they are. Six people have jobs that didn’t exist a few months ago, with more to come. A whole slew of local farmers and producers have new customers and are earning more money for their labors because of what people are buying. The store is more crowded every time I go in there, full of people I know and people I don’t, but they are all meeting and talking and forging connections with one another. We created this new community within our neighborhood, and it is better and more beautiful than any of us envisioned while we were making it up.


Visit the Dill Pickle Food Co-Op at 3029 W Fullerton, Chicago or www.dillpicklefoodcoop.org.


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