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Bushwick Food Co-op

Chair in Co-operative Enterprise


Bushwick Food Co-op

The University of Winnipeg’s Busola Olaniyan interviewed Nick Farr, a member of the Bushwick Food Co-op in Brooklyn, as she was in New York to present at a Masters in Development Practice conference. Farr talks about the decision making process at the Bushwick Food Co-op.

Bushwick, like many co-ops, is 100% member owned, and its responsibilities are broken down into the day to day roles of operating a “grocery purveyor” buying product, scheduling staff and finding new ways to interact with the community, are run by a sourcing committee. When major directional decisions are required, the membership is consulted at a general meeting. Each member’s opinion receives a fair audience, before a final decision is made.

Farr provided an example of when a freezer broke down, the sourcing committee went ahead and purchased a new $3000 one, as it is a vital part of day to day operations. If the store required massive renovations, this motion would have to go through several membership meetings before a final plan of action was established. A finance committee is in place to manage the fiscal operations and advise other committees as needed. Bushwick also has a board of directors who meet to insure the health and welfare of employees are addressed and that everything is up to code. It’s a system that involves trust, teamwork and respect for not only each other but the community they serve.  At the end of the day each decision made, is made, with the communities best interests at its heart.

Product

“By supporting local agriculture, I think if everyone knows how to farm their own food, they can figure out how to sustain themselves based on what is available. I think if everyone in the world did that, we would end one of those problems.” –Nick Farr’s response to the topic of poverty and food insecurity

Most of what is sold at Bushwick is organically grown that means no genetically modified organisms (GMO’s). The product is acquired by locally (Bushwick defines local as within 250 miles) sourcing from farms and other vendors in the New Yok area. Bushwick will avoid doing business with any companies that have social, environmental or labor issues. Beyond food Bushwick like many other food co-ops also sells products like natural green soap, sunscreen, recyclable trash bags or coconut oil based deodorant. They try to keep their prices accessible to all.  While some food co-ops only sell to members,  Bushwicks  sells to non-members and prices are 75% markup (so if a tomatoes cost them $1 you’d pay $1.75) whereas if you’re a member you’d only pay 24% markup which is much less than what grocery stores charge.

Simply put Bushwick’s goal is more than just selling grass-fed beef or vegan friendly milk; its goal is to offer both its members and community a healthy and affordable locally sourced alternative to the standard fare that Grocery Stores offer.           

Community

When we asked Mr. Farr what is it that separates Bushwick from other food outlets within New York his response was “Mostly location, we are the only food co-op that most of our members can walk to. The other food co-ops are much farther away.”

Buskwick wasn’t a food co-op overnight; they originally started off as a Buy in Club where they’d meet once a month, this eventually led to them acquiring a store front, which was only open three days of the week. Currently the co-op is open 6 days a week (soon to be open every day) and has evolved to match the community needs both economically and socially. Bushwick is serves as a resource for community development; from small things such as a providing a meeting spot to larger issues like soliciting help for a social cause or requesting members to help in completing a project.

“We are not at the point where there is a dividing line between the Co-op and the community. The community just uses the Co-op as another resource.” Nick Farr on outreach programs Bushwick is involved with.  

Nick gave us two examples Bushwick and the community working hand in hand. The first example was that the president of Bushwick also runs a homeless shelter, which is supported by Dough Farm a local producer they buy from. Bushwick gives away produce to the homeless shelter on a regular basis.  The other example is Bushwick supports a local youth composting program by regularly dropping off compost for them.

“Anybody who comes to us with a program, we would say yes, if it’s in our power to do it.” –Nick Farr

Operations

As discussed earlier Bushwick has several committees each with individual responsibilities and a democratic system that votes on all major decisions.  This is not the typical business model which can lead to different types of challenges.  One of the challenges of a non-traditional hierarchy is that not all policies are formalized the way they might be in a regular grocery store. Originally with fewer members’ certain things were just assumed and never written down or finalized, but with members growing Bushwick has come to the realization that these policies need to be formalized and written down so there is no confusion amongst members. When someone is hired at a traditional grocery store they usually don’t have the same level of input as someone who is of similar rank who’s been there for a longer period of time. But at a food co-op once someone is a member their vote is just as important as every other vote. This means the co-op needs to simultaneously adjust its operations in order to accommodate members’ concerns and ensure that all policies are updated so that members are clear as to the proper procedure. Farr believes this to be the greatest challenge of working for a food co-op explaining how even simple tasks build up and take up a lot of his time. An example is writing cheques, he could train someone else to do this but it takes ten times as long to accomplish this. Mr. Farr has sacrificed a lot of his personal time to get this training and more done but believes its necessary for Bushwick to move forward.

“I enjoy meeting people that share my values, I enjoy when I have moments of satisfaction when I have accomplished a task, but they are kind of fleeting because when you accomplish something, there is always a next thing and there is a never ending series of next things”.    –Nick Farr