Some join for social reasons. They consider food-getting a community project. Some join for religious reasons. They believe in good health through good food. Many join for economic reasons. They appreciate the low prices. They are the food children of San Diego, peaceful, apolitical, flour children. The flour children hand out food instead of flowers and are involved not in a particular lifestyle but in a service. The service centers, where food children of all ages come together, are the alternative food stores, the food co-ops.
Join is too strong a word for the roles of manager, volunteer and shopper which overlap; join is too weak a word for the cooperative energy which keeps the stores open.
The Solana Beach People’s Food store, 503 North Highway 101, has been operating successfully for about three years.
Scene: As customers finish shopping and approach the unattended cash register.
Volunteer: Can I do the register?
Manager: Sure. Have you used it before?
People’s Food has evolved from its beginnings in a class at UCSD and a goal of supplying low-cost food to the goal of offering the best food available. To the food children of Solana Beach, that means organically grown foodstuff, raw milk and fertile eggs, and a vegetarian emphasis.
S.B. People’s Food has more space than the other co-ops I visited. The main store holds refrigerators for vegetables and dairy products, fruit and nut displays, herbs and seeds, tables of fruits. The storehouse in the rear is stocked with grain barrels, refrigerated oil in bulk, and beans. Despite the high-quality foods, fresher and finer than supermarket goods, prices are very low. A couple of months ago, the mark-up on all their foods was raised to a mere 20 percent above cost.
“The important thing,” says Penny, one of four managers, “is it’s all volunteer.”
The managers, whose responsibilities include ordering and picking up stock daily, take part of their small salary in food. Volunteers from the neighborhood, who sign up on a monthly calendar, receive one dollar’s worth of food for four hour’s work. How do they get people to work for nothing? “Good Karma,” according to Penny. And community spirit.
Outside, the store looks like a gigantic bulletin board. Posters advertising the nighttime use of the store as community center: the monthly pot-luck dinner meetings open to everyone interested in the future of the store; the lecture series on topics such as the uses of soybeans, the raising of vegetarian children. Penny sees herself and the other food children of Solana Beach as apolitical but as “community activists.” She calls running the store “a continuing educational process” for her and for the neighborhood.
Inside, People’s Food is still evolving. With the store’s greatly increased volume of business, new systems of operation which will ensure some contribution of time or money from all store users are being discussed. Penny thinks the lax structure of the store is good. “it’s about as loose as it can be now. People feel at home. We like it to be their store.” Presently, they are in the process of changing their partnership status to that of a non-profit organization. Another change, inspired by shoplifting losses, as much as $70/day, is the Register Check, totaling the receipts after each four-hour shift on the register. And, although weighing of produce is still on the honor system, the cashiers have now been instructed to investigate any suspiciously heavier bags of food. “We’re not into calling the police or prosecuting, but we want to encourage the people’s involvement in the store.” Customers help out, sometimes spontaneously, by bringing extra bags and egg cartons, or, sometimes on request, by bagging all of a bulk item instead of just enough for themselves. Shopping at Solana Beach People’s, they say, is less a chore than a “socially and aesthetically pleasing event.”
Part of the excitement of the store is its ability to change directions with the needs of the community. To one volunteer, “It’s an experiment, like anything that’s worthwhile.”
I left People’s Food with a bag of beautiful organically grown tomatoes at 10 cents a pound.
At 4859 Voltaire, at the southern border of the territory covered in this report, flourish the food children of the Ocean Beach People’s Food Store. Their operation is similar to Solana Beach’s: four managers, all else volunteer, 20 percent mark-up, no memberships.
Scene: Shopper: Hey, you got your new cash register?
Cashier: Yeah, from donations. We got more than enough and it didn’t take very long, either. Now we’re working on a van.
After a year and two months of business, O.B. People’s has no trouble getting volunteers from the neighborhood, though, in an emergency, there may be a sign: We need people to help move our refrigerator to make room for one that works better … a half hour’s work … love, peace, and Woodstock …
“Peace be with you, sister,” says Michael working in the small kitchen area of the store. It is used to prepare free community suppers from leftover store stock. The managers are not 100% crazy about those suppers. Hardly anyone leaves donations, almost everyone dirties the kitchen floor.
The volunteer at the cash register is full of smiles. He enjoys the time spent at the front of the store not for the bit of food he takes for his time but for the cineramic view from the spreading store windows.
One aspect of this experiment in non-profit store-keeping is the shopping done by the store. Ocean Beach People’s, as one example, gets its supplies from changing sources as word gets around about good places to deal with. One week’s shopping may include the Nut Run, ( a joint journey with S.B. People’s to Escondido), deliveries from Positive Pole, an association of organic growers, occasional drop-offs by small local growers, plus daily purchases of produce downtown. The O.B. store does not bother with inventory (or with shoplifting, by the way). They reckon their needs in the evening for the next day.