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Food Buying Club Hopes to Become Queens' First Co-op

By Ewa Kern-Jedrychowska | November 20, 2012 7:21am

WOODSIDE — A group of Queens residents trying to start the first food co-op in the borough has established a buying club — an important step in the process that allows them to offer members farm-fresh products.

The Queens Harvest Food Co-op gets most of its food from the Lancaster, Pa., area and upstate New York, but also carries Blue Bottle Coffee and Mast Brothers Chocolate, both from Williamsburg, and bread from Roberta’s Bakery in Bushwick.

“It’s an opportunity for people to buy really fresh, good quality food,” said Toni Ceaser, 58, a Long Island City resident who is also a member of the Park Slope Food Co-op. “A lot of it is organic and it’s also affordable.”

The Queens Harvest Food Co-op was formed in 2010 and its members were hoping to establish a brick-and-mortar co-op by 2011. But the challenges, including finding a location, volunteers, and collecting enough money, proved overwhelming.

Instead, they formed a buying club, a path that was also followed by the Park Slope Food Co-op, said Tonice Sgrignoli, one of the group's organizers.

“We’ve learned that a buying club is a viable model to start a co-op,” she said.

But operating the buying club, which has 50 to 60 members and about 5,000 people on its mailing list, has had its challenges, too.

“We had to figure out how to make an incredibly complicated system work,” said Sgrignoli. “And we are not really trained.”

First, the group had to find a place with refrigerators and enough space for their members to be able to pick up food — St. Jacobus Evangelical Lutheran Church, on 43rd Avenue in Woodside.

“We are basically a pop-up store,” said Sgrignoli, adding that at first the club was able to serve a very limited number of members, but now is ready to expand.

Another challenge is that most products have to be bought in wholesale amounts, so if too few members want a particular item, the club may not be able to order it.

Members who order products but don’t pick them up also create problems, Sgrignoli said.

At this point, the club does not charge a membership fee, but it encourages members to volunteer.

Frank Adams, 70, a retired telecommunications consultant from Forest Hills, said he is optimistic the co-op will eventually have its own store.

The group is considering several locations, eyeing neighborhoods near transportation hubs, including Long Island City and Astoria, as well as Sunnyside and Jackson Heights.

But Adams says the process may easily take another year or even longer.

To get more information, go here: http://www.queensharvestcoop.com/