Food Co-op Sets Sights on Lincoln Square

By Patty Wetli on March 12, 2013 6:12am 

LINCOLN SQUARE — Picture a neighborhood grocery store that sells Whole Foods produce at Walmart prices, shares its bakery with community kitchens and offers classes on vegetable gardening.

"That doesn't exist yet. That's why I'm here," said Greg Berlowitz as he addressed a standing-room-only crowd at Sulzer Library last week.

Attendees had come to learn more about Chicago Cooperative, a movement led by Berlowitz to bring a large-scale food co-op to Chicago, likely situated in the vicinity of Lincoln Square.

"We live in the third-biggest city and there are no food co-ops ... except Dill Pickle, which is great and small, and we need more," said Berlowitz, 42.

Food co-ops, he explained, are member-owned grocery stores, run by a board of directors elected by the membership. According to the National Cooperative Business Association, food co-ops exist in 350 communities in the U.S.

In effect, members set the prices and determine what merchandise the co-op carries, according to Berlowitz.

Though co-ops generally welcome all shoppers, members typically receive special benefits — Logan Square's Dill Pickle offers them a 5 percent discount — in exchange for investing in the co-op via a one-time fee.

Berlowitz compared the investment to an annual $50 Costco membership with one exception.

"You don't own Costco," he said.

At the same time, he noted, co-ops tend to be as much of a social enterprise as an economic one, placing an emphasis on relationships with local producers, environmental and nutritional awareness, and fair labor practices.

"Who wants more consistent access to local product? Who wants to really understand their food?" Berlowitz asked the group gathered at Sulzer.

Hands shot up in unanimous agreement.

"To me, food co-ops are the closest thing to a farmers market," he said.

"Bottom line, co-ops keep food real."

The Rogers Park resident has been kicking around the idea of a co-op for more than a decade but wound up as an environmental lawyer instead.

"I didn't like what I was doing with my life. I was really unhappy," Berlowitz said.

Having left the legal profession, he's now devoting his energy to establishing a Chicago co-op large enough to compete with major chains in terms of economies of scale while remaining true to its community roots, a goal he admits is challenging.

"There are seven co-ops being built in Illinois. We're the only ones crazy enough to do it in a big city," he said, joking that at co-op conferences his peers are all from Vermont.

To realize his vision, Berlowitz acknowledged the need for outreach, particularly if the co-op is to serve a diverse population.

"It's still my circle, which is small. I want not the typical Whole Foods buyer to be building this," he said.

His goal at the informational meeting (the second of two): recruit volunteers to not only spread the word about the co-op but to help shepherd the concept through a process that could take anywhere from two to six years to bring to fruition.

A break-out session had attendees jotting down their notions of what the co-op could encompass. Rooftop garden, focus on seasonal food, cooking classes, community events and proximity to public transit were just a few of the responses — along with questions such as do locally-grown avocados exist.

Abigail Armstrong, 27, of Lincoln Park, currently shops at Jewel, Trader Joe's and farmers markets, but not Whole Foods, she said. A transplant from San Francisco — a food co-op mecca — she was keen on purchasing bulk food and "having a connection to local food."

Rachel Krupski, 32, is a substitute teacher who lives in Lakeview. She recently moved to Chicago from Boston where she shopped at a co-op.

"I want fresh produce from farms, cooking classes and a sense of community."

Berlowitz was cheered by the enthusiasm.

"Tonight is terrific," he said. "Everyone says, 'Yes, do it. What do we need to do?' What we need to do is this — start organizing."

If you missed the informational meeting but would like to be involved with Chicago Cooperative, check out the sign-up page on the organization's website.

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