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.
Early one yawning, 6:00 a.m. I met Chris and Jeanette at O.B. People’s to see how they shop for the store. They decided on Moceri’s instead of downtown, because even though it’s a cheek-pinching, hard-selling hassle, costlier in time and money than downtown, the quality at Moceri’s is tops. First we fill the van, borrowed from one of the food children (but “We’re trying to get our own”), with yesterday’s crates. “We make them recycle the crates.” On the way through the thick, sneaky fog, Jeanette and Chris talk warily about Dominick, preparing me for his oily salesmanship.
Arriving at Moceri’s on Lovelock Street, we toss the crates back where they came from. “We don’t want ‘em!” yells a warehouse worker. “Well, you got ‘em!” returns Jeanette, ecologically. And we jump into the arena, a tremendous design of refrigerated rooms with watery floors. Chris wore shorts and Dominick, who removed his specs for the photos, said he and his workers are used to the temperature, but it was sure cold as apples in there. J & C have planned the amounts of what to buy, the daily 120 pounds of tomatoes, the six cartons of mushrooms, but are flexible as to unexpected goodies, maybe too flexible as they succumb to the charms of Dominick and his fresh fruits. The produce is gorgeous just to look at and ultimately irresistible when Dominick cuts open samples of sweet things to taste and promises a good price. While C & J load their stuff on warehouse carts, Dominick shows me the banana room. What’s that smell? The bananas are ripened by ethylene and the room is then ventilated. O.B. People’s finds most of the things needed – Moceri’s has no Union lettuce today – plus some things not planned on – sugar pears – and the bill comes to $175, at least $50 more than they have figured on spending. We are just rolling away in the van when Dominick comes arunning with his voice, something about cabbages. “You don’t have to pay now. I’ll put it on the bill for tomorrow.” And Chris goes back for a crate of beautiful cabbage. They feel that Dominick has won. Will you have to raise prices? “Some of them.” But the van is so pretty now. We started out all grey and invisible in the fog and turned all green and orange with the cargo. Eight o’ clock back at the store in time to write new prices of the day and to display the foodstuff. Chris and Jeanette work a long day, ‘til eight at night/ The O.B. People’s faithful are largely vegetarian. Most shoppers buy there religiously. One healthier-than-thou customer explained, “I wouldn’t buy a thing from Safeway. I could walk up and down those aisles and find maybe one thing I’d dare to eat. You should put that in your article about all the sugar and chemicals in packaged food,” O.K.
I bought salad ingredients, also some Russet potatoes at * cents a pound. When I paid with a check (What smells so good? Could be many things, but you’re standing beneath the incense rack), the cashier did not ask for an i.d.
In the shadow of the bluer than sky-blue “You’ll like the total better at Alpha-Beta” billboard, the Beach Area General Store, 3837 Mission Boulevard, wages its own campaign for low food prices and cooperative spirit.
Scene: One second after opening, hoards of food children of all ages filling the store: shopping as in Europe a la market basket and buying just enough for the day since it’s a neighborhood store and there’ll be fresh food again tomorrow.
This a membership co-op with no mark-up for those paying a $4/month membership fee and 30% mark-up for non-members. Wayne, a volunteer who gets his food and good company for his time, told me that if you are buying for more than one, membership is advantageous. Then he gave me a tour of the refrigerator truck out back.
Bill Reilly is the manager, one of five, most knowledgeable about the history of the Beach Area General Store, because he was there. As a member of the Olney Street House, a Pacific Beach commune, he saw their food buying club expand until it got out of hand. So two years ago, the Olney St. Co-op became an activity of the Mission Beach Free Clinic. They moved into what used to be a surf shop and redesigned the store with $10,000 worth of free labor and a grant from the city. Tim, another manager, told me that help for the project was easy to find. “We borrowed money here and there, not dealing with banks but with friends. We don’t even have a bank account and don’t like to accept checks. Money is probably the easiest thing in the world to get.” For a while the store was a retail non-profit operation returning 40% of its profit to the Clinic. “We used to run the store on salary. That became the incentive to work and it destroyed a lot of things. This has to be a mom and pop store with lots of moms and pops.” The food children “got sick of marketing, showing customers what was a good deal,” explaining that when supermarkets charge less than the Store for something, it was a gimmick. “So we asked them to join a co-op.” Response was good and quickly covered their overhead.
The Beach Area co-op sells cheap, not necessarily organic, but healthy vegetarian foods. “People scream and holler for organic stuff and when they look at it, they don’t want to buy.” Membership is a donation rather than a voting privilege. “What if they wanted to buy meat? We’d probably buy the cows and put ‘em out back and let ‘em slaughter them. Then maybe they wouldn’t want to eat meat.”
If the store is short of help, they close the door until customers who come around back to investigate are snared into volunteering.
These older, successfully running co-ops help out newer food stores with ideas, space, money.
Two new co-ops opened this fall. At San Diego State the General Store is run on a two-price system with a 1% mark-up for members and prices comparable to Safeway for non-members. The State food children say that the quality of their food is superior to that in supermarkets. To join, one must pay the student fee plus a semesterly membership charge. Kathy, one of five employees salaried by the Associated Student Body, says business is so good they are already thinking about the snack bar they will open if they sell enough memberships. After less than one month of operation, they have 250 members.
The newest co-op is also the northest. At 332 North Highway 101, the Encintas Collective of as yet undetermined direction is open for business and suggestions. They have a beautiful building and the help of Solana Beach People’s Food for strength, and conflicts of ideals and personality which should make for an exciting future. According to Bill, they are doing fine already and expect to evolve rapidly during their beginning stage.
Not all the food co-ops have good news. The San Marcos co-op, a non-membership 25% mark-up store at 311 Pleasant Way near Palomar College, may already have vanished by this printing. It was established by community need in June, but Discouraged Dave told me that the meeting on Sunday will decide their fate. “You can call on Monday and if no one answers the phone …” As of now, the San Marcos store, UNICO, which offers good food, organic and sugar free and cheap, is open six days a week.
Complimentarily, the Golden Hills co-op, 1355 Fern, corner Ash and Fern, is open only one day a week, Saturday, August 28th was its first birthday. Jay Weiner, the only paid worker “That’s my main thing now” supplements his full-time responsibility with the co-op by delivering newspapers. Jay’s problem is the co-ops problem, lack of money. “Know anyone with a talent for raising money?” I told Jay to take out a free classified in the Reader.
The present Golden Hills co-op is a resurrected venture which failed a year or so ago. They concentrate on quality and low prices, not on health foods, although they stock most of the popular health food items. The Golden Hills food children, who include older childless couples, younger families with children, and students, pay a one-shot membership according to scale:
$2.50 for a household of one or two people.
$5.00 for a three to five people house.
$10.00 for six or more.
The membership fee plus the system of paying in advance for the estimated cost of the order enables the group to buy their food. On Saturday morning, the store opens for members only; afternoon leftovers are available to the public at the same 10% mark-up price. The goal of the Golden Hills co-op is to convert to a store open daily. Jay is hopeful . “We’re not going to fold this time. We’re really strong now.” And immensely satisfied with his work. “The fact of being involved in getting our own food together means we are able to get exactly the type of food we want. The sum total of the co-op is good food.” As much as he loves good food, Jay gets sick of it. It’s all those prices dancing in his head. Says he can’t stand seeing it in the middle of the week. And I thought that happened only in ice cream stores.
The Linda Vista food co-op started in May with support from various community, religious, and service groups. First dealing in fresh produce only, it has expanded to include eggs and other dairy products. Most of the Linda Vista food children are on welfare, social security, or are just plain middle class, not part of a student community; so their concern is with low prices rather than with organically grown food. Now in the process of reorganizing, the co-op may change its status to a non-profit corporation. For information , talk to Mel Chavez, 277-0990.
Although there are no plans for the co-ops to buy together as one unit – they say their needs and cash-flow situations are too divergent – they keep each other informed about reliable, honest suppliers. They also donate or lend money and equipment, and provide ordering services for each other. They are not competitive stores.
Except for the San Diego State co-op, they are not student organizations run by students but are community stores for people of all ages. Even State’s store is open to the public.
They are not political centers. Bill Reilly explains that as a non-profit organization, Beach Area has to be careful about being political. The store just happens not to buy Teamster lettuce. He knows the food children would not buy it anyway. Margi at Encinitas believes their store should buy from small suppliers rather than from big companies which invest their profit in developing the coast. To her, it is flour power, not politics. Jay Weiner disagrees with the boycott of Golden Hills. Nonetheless, their views influence store policy, too. All the stores support the needs of the neighborhood people. As Bill Reilly puts it “We listen to what they say when they come in the door.”
Whatever their organizational differences, all the food co-ops offer the same advantages to the shopper: extremely low prices, high quality, fresh daily, unwrapped food so that the shopper may buy exactly as much as he needs, healthful foods unavailable in supermarkets, nothing from cold storage. Subtler advantages are the community feeling, the socializing, the cozy ambiance of the co=ops. All the stores are not vegan but vegetarian oriented carrying a great variety of protein in grain, bean, nut, and dairy form. No meats are sold. Some co-ops feature organically grown foods; all co-ops sell high quality foods at low prices.
The flour children of San Diego go about their food-getting with izealism. It’s easy to see where they get their energy.