Won’t Work for Food

W hen my husband and I moved from Manhattan to Park Slope, Brooklyn, last year, people would inevitably ask, “So, are you going to cave in and join the Coop?” They meant the Park Slope Food Coop, the largest member-owned and -operated co-op in the country. Something between an earthy-crunchy health food haven and a Soviet-style reeducation camp, the Coop offered great groceries at low prices but required its members to work in the store for the privilege of shopping there. No way were we joining.

But I soon found that Park Slope, a yuppified, leafy neighborhood 20 minutes from downtown Manhattan, was a wasteland when it came to perishables. It has chef-driven restaurants and slinky boutiques, but try to find a crisp apple and you’re out of luck. I went to some delis, but the fruit and veggies were strategically wrapped in plastic and Styrofoam to hide soft spots. Blue Apron, a terrific specialty shop, had fancy chocolates and artisanal bread but no meat or produce. There was no produce at our local farmer’s market in the winter. And I discovered that the fruits and vegetables from Fresh Direct, a grocery delivery service, were anything but. I was seemingly out of options.

Enter the Coop. Organic blueberries and entire grass-fed steers, purchased directly from local farmers. Big, leafy watercress. Uncommon items like azuki beans and flaxseed in the bulk section. And it was cheap. You could walk out with 12 items in your string bag for $17, the tip for an average meal in Manhattan.

We joined.

I walked into the Coop for new-member orientation, I found a shopping experience stripped of all consumerist sheen: dim, warehouse-style lighting; narrow aisles; members grumbling to each other about the endless lines. Upstairs, I took my place among some 40 other prospective shoppers in rows facing a woman with a video projector.

“We work every four weeks, not every month. Does everyone understand the difference?” the woman with the projector said in a baby voice, enunciating every word. Not everyone did. Shifts were 2.75 hours, she continued, and every single adult member of the household had to do them. No buying out of it, no family plans. I realized I would be required to work my husband’s shift, too, as he worked full time at an office job and I worked from home.

I asked if I could have a nonphysical task because of back pain. She interrupted, “If you have a medical problem, your physician can give us a note.” I signed up to work two shifts in the office.

Two weeks later, I arrived at the Coop’s check-in desk with my new ID card for what I thought was my first scheduled work shift. One of the scanner people told me, “You’re on alert for work, and Tom is on alert for orientation.” I was flabbergasted. I knew my husband had shirked the new-member orientation, but I thought I was following all the rules.

“But I’m here to work my first shift,” I said.

“No, you missed your first shift,” the guy told me. “This is your second shift.” Now, I was told, I would have to work two shifts for the one I missed as punishment.

I climbed the stairs to the office. My job was to answer the phone, which rang every 20 seconds with questions from members confused about their work shifts. These were impossible to answer. To find a member’s record, one had to look through a loose-leaf binder with hundreds of pages, organized not by the member’s name or number but by “A” shift, “B” shift,” and “C” shift on a particular date.

Finally, at the end of the shift I was allowed to shop. I cruised the wide, verdant aisles, where great produce was being caringly watered down. I put beautiful bananas from South America in my cart, along with blueberries, apples, cashews, and almonds. Now I faced my biggest challenge yet: leaving.

First there was the scanning line. I learned that I was expected to remember whether my items were organic, though no signs had been posted instructing me to do this. When I admitted I didn’t know the status of my apples, the grocery scanning lady yelled at me, “Well, go find out! You’re holding up the line!” I ran as fast as I could.

“How many bags?” Scanner Lady squawked when I returned, and I looked at her blankly. Turns out I was expected to estimate the number of bags I would need for my groceries before I would be allowed to receive the bags and put groceries in them myself. After I got my bags and a slip of paper that had the number of bags I’d been given written on it, I stood in a second line, where I paid. Relieved, I walked out. People started screaming. “Hey, HEY!” They thought I was stealing. I turned and saw the checkout person at the door who looks at your receipt and checks the number of bags against your bag slip, then stamps your papers so that you can exit.

“How many bags?” Scanner Lady squawked.

Outside, a member offered to roll out my cart for me, before learning that I lived outside the approved six-block cart-helping-out radius.

Shaken, I trudged home with my great produce.

The Coop wasn’t always so nuts. It was founded in 1973 by 10 people who wanted to save money on groceries. At the beginning, they had hanging scales and calculators by the door, and people just weighed their stuff, added it up, paid, and left. The maze of lines was put in place by 1980 to put a stop to thievery, which was becoming a problem, says founder Joe Holtz.

The stringent work requirements and penalties for skipping are essential, maintains Holtz, to make the place run. “We grew from 5,000 [members] in 2001 to 13,000 in 2006, so there should be an economy of scale. But we get bigger shipments, checkout takes longer, and bathrooms get dirtier faster. Most of the work, as you grow, grows with it.” Why not let nonmembers just pay more? “You can feel work but you can’t feel money,” says Holtz.

I thought about ways to cheat the system. I could say my husband left me, so I wouldn’t have to work his shift too. Declaring how many adults live in your household is done on the honor system. So the Coop would have no way of knowing. But then I had an O’Henry moment: What if my husband really did then leave me?

Meanwhile, Fairway, a Manhattan grocery superstore known for its great selection and low prices, opened a branch in Red Hook, Brooklyn. For many neighbors, this changed everything. Except not for me, because Red Hook was a 15-minute drive, and we had no car. Whole Foods was supposedly opening a branch soon, just a quarter-mile from our apartment. Then they decided to delay the opening several years. They haven’t even broken ground.

I quit less than three months after joining the Coop. Like somebody in a bad relationship, I started finding fault everywhere I looked. The organic blueberries were a little on the squishy side. The cheddar cheese always seemed to be low. But the real reason was that the trouble outweighed the advantages.

One day, I just never went back.

Now I beg Tom to stop by Whole Foods in Manhattan before getting on the subway home. That means he has to carry all the groceries with his work stuff and gym clothes the 15-minute walk back to our place from the station. It’s a lot of work. But it’s the kind of work that makes sense. And when he walks in the door with fresh, juicy pears, I make sure never to scream, “You’re on alert!”

Photographs by Trevor Snapp