2020 vision

New Central Brooklyn Food Co-op Aims to Nourish and Empower Locals

Recruiting for the Central Brooklyn Food Co-op at the Weeksville Heritage Society in Brooklyn, August 2019.
Recruiting for the Central Brooklyn Food Co-op at the Weeksville Heritage Society in Brooklyn, August 2019. Photo: Murray Spenser Cox/Central Brooklyn Food Co-op

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Locals are looking to launch a food co-op for Bedford-Stuyvesant, Crown Heights and Brownsville — by and for Brooklyn residents with modest incomes hungering for low-cost fresh grocery options.

The Central Brooklyn Food Co-op, a black-led, consumer-owned cooperative, launched its crowdfunding campaign Wednesday to help underwrite its anticipated 2020 opening at a location yet to be determined.

The aim is to raise $25,000 by Nov. 22, and to recruit 250 members by the end of the year. By Thursday afternoon, the effort had already pulled in more than $11,000 from 175 contributors.

Brooklyn has other food co-ops — most famously, in upscale Park Slope.

But the Central Brooklyn co-op has a mission that’s as much social as culinary: It seeks to empower people who have suffered through years of economic disinvestment in their neighborhoods — yet are now facing the threat of displacement as wealthier outsiders move in.

“Central Brooklyn has been through so much with redlining and now gentrification, that there aren’t really affordable food options in the area, never mind that they’re community owned or community decided,” Bianca Bockman, who heads Riseboro Community Partnership’s Food Justice Program, told THE CITY.

It’s been five years since Brooklyn Movement Center started working with area residents to hatch a food co-op plan, after years of discussion.

“This is a conversation that has been going on in the community for decades,” Bockman said.

The Central Brooklyn Food Co-op’s core mission is promoting racial justice, giving it a “consciously political edge,” according to Mark Winston Griffith, the executive director of the Brooklyn Movement Center. (Griffith is also a member of THE CITY’s board of directors.)

The co-op will sell fresh food, with a focus on organic vegetables and vegan options, while supplying more traditional foods, Griffith and Bockman said. Members will have to donate two hours of volunteer labor each month to help keep operating costs low.

People receiving public assistance can join with a stake of $20. Others will have to put up $150 to become a member and be eligible to shop.

Anyone can join, but the cooperative is intended to primarily serve low- and moderate-income residents, said Bockman.

Ripening the Concept

The storefront will be located “ideally, along the eastern Bed-Stuy/Crown Heights border,” according to Bockman, who’s currently on the hunt for a spot. The money raised via crowdfunding will be devoted to help open the space, she added.

She anticipates the co-op will serve as a community hub, offering cooking classes, a farm share and other programs.

Organizers are hoping the crowdfunding campaign will get the co-op closer to the finish line of an expected spring opening. “We want members to join and people to come in, donate, and be a part of it,” Bockman said.

The food co-op was first proposed in 2013 during a Brooklyn Movement Center’s “Grub Party,” a semi-regular potluck event where community stakeholders discuss social justice issues in the neighborhood and brainstorm solutions.

Food co-ops already existed in the imagination of many residents. Some looked to the Park Slope Food Coop and Clinton Hill’s Greene Hill Food Co-op, while longtime Crown Heights residents recalled one in the neighborhood back in the 1970s and 1980s.

“I don’t want to say a no-brainer, but it was something that emerged as the most appropriate vehicle,” Griffith recalled of those early discussions.

By 2015, the co-op completed its bylaws and began recruiting members. It currently has around 40 participants.

Earlier this year, the project received a $400,000 grant through the National Institute of Food and Agriculture of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which funds hyper-local, community food projects. The money, to be disbursed over four years, gave the business a much-needed boost.

The co-op just needs a little more time to ripen.

“A big supermarket can come and plant itself in the neighborhood without much fanfare but this has been a grassroots, democratic effort,” said Bockman. “The smart thing to do is to respond to a community call for what should be done. And democracy takes time.”

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