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Taking a closer look at the CO-OP

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The Swarthmore CO-OP has been a part of the Swarthmore community for over 80 years, and its status as the only grocery store in the ville makes it popular among both residents of the borough and students. The college’s relationship with the CO-OP changed in 2016 when students were able to utilize their OneCard and Swat Points there, but the relationship between the CO-OP and college students has a long history.

The CO-OP is a food cooperative that first opened its doors in 1932. Food cooperatives are distinctive from other grocery stores because they have investors where decisions regarding the production and distribution of its food are chosen by its members. The CO-OP is the third oldest food cooperative in the country.

According to digital marketing intern at the CO-OP Isabel Paynter, the CO-OP’s investors typically purchase 60 shares of the company for $5 each. These investors who have at least $300 of equity in the company have the ability to influence the products carried at the CO-OP. Many of the items the CO-OP carries are considered speciality or local.

“We [the CO-OP] have over 110 local vendors, which means the products we carry are not the type you can buy at Giant or Target. We carry brands that are organic or fit our brand and sometimes that’s why our prices are more expensive,” Paynter said.

For some students, the higher prices at the CO-OP can be a deterrent from buying products there. Leisa Liao ’18, who is on the PPR meal plan that offers $700 in Swat Points, noted that while she likes to use her Swat Points at the CO-OP, she still finds some of the prices expensive.

“This year I’m trying to shop more at the CO-OP because I don’t like eating out as much and I want to learn how to cook. The other week I hosted a dinner party for eight of my friends, and after doing some grocery shopping in Media and at the CO-OP, it ended up being about $200.” Liao said.

Liao also shops at other nearby grocery stores and compares prices to find which products are better to purchase at the CO-OP. She primarily shops at the CO-OP due to its accessibility with the OneCard.

“I only started shopping at the CO-OP once it was on the OneCard. I’ll shop at the CO-OP until I run out of points because you’re using points that you’ve already paid for with your room and board. I wish the OneCard would expand to other grocery stores, like Target or Trader Joe’s, that offer cheaper prices on products,” Liao said.

Though the CO-OP is OneCard-accessible this school year, this summer, rumors erupted about the CO-OP losing its OneCard status. However, these rumors were quelled shortly before students returned to campus.

According to Paynter, the terms and agreements with the college had expired and renegotiations were made. Some of these renegotiations included the elimination of the 5 percent discount off all products for Swarthmore students. Yet Paynter believes that the CO-OP’s new online engagement is more beneficial to students. Raffles, email subscription lists, and contests all give students the opportunity to score new coupons or discounts at the CO-OP.

“I think [having the CO-OP on the OneCard] is a good way for college kids to be a part of the Swarthmore community. Students can benefit from a lot of things that the CO-OP offers that they don’t know about,” Paynter said.

Thomas Dailak ’21, a regular customer at the CO-OP, likes to shop at the CO-OP because of its vicinity to the college.

“I shop at the CO-OP because I like to cook and I need to buy ingredients somewhere. There [is] very limited supply of places where I can do that. For me, coming from New York, the prices [at the CO-OP] are pretty much what I’m used to,” Dailak said.

However, Dailak does believe that easier access to other grocery stores would lower costs for students.

“They [the CO-OP] know they’ve cornered the market on groceries, so I think that the prices would probably adjust as well if more students had other options for [grocery] shopping,” he said.

Though the school offers shuttle service to stores like Target, Giant, and Trader Joe’s, these stores are often less convenient due to the CO-OP’s close proximity to campus and its OneCard accessibility.

While criticisms of the CO-OP’s pricing persist, the CO-OP continues to play a significant role in both the borough and on campus.

Endless Possibilities, Aisle One

in Around Campus/Campus Journal by

They say ignorance is bliss. They’re wrong. I’ve been at Swarthmore for nearly four months and I’m here to tell you, that when I went to the Co-Op for the first time on a sunny afternoon in late November and, rid of my ignorance, I experienced true bliss. There’s something magical about the Co-Op. I didn’t realize how large it was from just seeing it from the outside, and was amazed to see a grocery store — I had imagined something of an earthy corner store. As I walked down the aisles, I realized that despite not being a restaurant, the Co-Op has ambiance. The lighting is bright, but still romantic enough that you will fall in love with the refrigerator full of fancy cheese. The aisles are cozy and the foods stocking the shelves beam radiance and joy. The ice cream lines part of the side wall and filled me with a unique mix of hunger and regret. The favorite dessert of our vice president and esteemed Delawarean, Joe Biden, has just been sitting in the Co-Op waiting to be purchased with my leftover Swat Points. I wondered how I could have missed everything that the Co-Op has to offer, from my favorite grocery items like ice cream to prepared foods like sushi and paninis. The breadth of options gives the Co-Op a unique vibe that feels like the world’s possibilities are endless.

As a very serious amateur food critic, I had internally debated the merit of reviewing the Co-Op. I realized that it was not a restaurant, but I had heard excellent things about their paninis. I wondered, if an establishment sold soap and birthday cards in addition to their food, did it fit the criteria for this series? I wondered, until I ate. I had a panini, cleverly named “The Gobbler of Fire”. All of the Co-Ops signature paninis and sandwiches have witty names, and would be more accurately named pun-inis. From ordering the Gobbler, a sandwich with turkey, arugula, red onions, a balsamic sauce made in-house, and provolone cheese, to receiving it, I spent nearly ten minutes waiting for my lunch. Well worth the wait, the Gobbler of Fire is delicious. The turkey is savory and exceeded my expectations in terms of its flavor and overall quality. The red onions gave the sandwich tang that was complimented well by the honey balsamic sauce. The panini was what I really want Thanksgiving to taste like. It had warm flavors that work together to provide a layered experience. I personally rank turkey as my least favorite deli meat, but the Co-Op transforms it from an overrated meat into an eating event well worth the walk from campus.

In addition to prepared foods perfect for any meal of the day, the Co-Op is the best place to stock up on snacks. When I saw the pepperoni sitting under the glass at the deli counter, I thought I was having anticipatory meat sweats. It turned out I had just been wearing my coat indoors for too long, but nonetheless, I was ready to have some quality pepperoni in my life. Much of the Co-Op’s meat, including the pepperoni, comes from Applegate Farms, a company whose meat is antibiotic free, GMO free, rBGH free, organic, and grass-fed. While the benefits of some of those specifications is debatable, the meat at the Co-Op is delicious and seems to match the progressive tastes of the Swarthmore clientele. Upon arriving back at my dorm and opening up the meat I had purchased, I was pleased. The pepperoni has the perfect overtones of heat and the classic zesty taste of the pork and beef combination. I also picked up hummus and pita chips while at the Co-Op, and was highly impressed with the hummus carried by the Co-Op. Coming in several flavors, the garlic variety might border on too garlic-y for some, but I’m a firm believer that there’s no such thing as too much garlic.

The Co-Op is a great place to get lunch, dinner, snacks, and anything in between. It’s also good for getting non-food items like shampoo. The versatility of the Co-Op is what makes it one of the best uses of Swat points.  Not only is it possible to get a hot lunch to take back to campus, but you can also get peanut butter and other basics without having to go all the way to Target or have a friendly relative send them through the mail. The Co-Op is by far the most useful addition to the OneCard. Although it offers a very limited menu of cooked food, the wide variety of other items and the ability to stock up on items like fresh vegetables and assorted cheeses means that the Co-Op is not just a store. The Co-Op is an institution that has inspired my culinary optimism and given me both the snacks and the hope to get through the rest of the semester.

Co-Op pricing explained by business model

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The new OneCard system means more students than ever are shopping in the Ville, which includes the local grocery store, the Swarthmore Cooperative Community Food Market commonly referred to as the “Co-Op.” The grocery store carries items like those at Whole Foods, privileging organic and high-quality over low-price and high quantity, unlike most grocery stores. Unlike Whole Foods, the business has a long history and is truly locally owned and operated. Though students appreciate the convenience and quality the Co-Op provides, many complain about the Co-Op’s pricing, which is significantly higher than those at regular grocery stores.

The Co-Op was founded in 1937 by Swarthmore Borough community members as a way to pool resources to buy food during the Great Depression. Originally, the store was located near where Aria’s Restaurant is now, but it changed to its new, expanded location in the 1990s. The store is owned by over 700 members, who, in return for membership fees get discounts and are involved in decision making at the Co-Op. The Co-Op can only exists in a low traffic area like the Ville because of its business model, which emphasizes serving its members over profits.

This business model also contributes to higher prices. The Co-op sells ready-made sandwiches for around $7.00, a gallon of milk for $4.49, a dozen at eggs, $2.59, and cans of organic black beans for $2.69. A hamburger costs $3.25 in Essies, and the average price for a gallon of milk costs $2.69. The average price of a dozen eggs is $1.66, and in most grocery stores, a can  of beans costs around $1.00. This means the Co-Op has around a 100 percent mark-up for these basic items.

The Swarthmore Co-Op is an official cooperative business, meaning it is partly owned by the customer. This business model has gained popularity throughout the United States in the last couple of years. In general cooperatives aim to provide a healthy working environment and help the local economy.

Business leader of the Co-Op Dawn Betts explained that the high quality and low quantity of goods (relative to other grocery stores) that the Co-op purchases, combined with the economics of the grocery business, leads to the high cost at the Co-Op.

“Local co-ops such as ours are challenged to sell a volume of goods that allow us to negotiate low prices with our vendors and wholesalers.  The smaller a grocery store’s volume, the higher the price that’s paid for goods at the wholesale level. Our labor costs are a bit higher, too, since we have a commitment to the Swarthmore area community to provide reasonable wages and benefits … Our Co-Op is also dedicated to sourcing produce and other products from local providers,” said Betts.  

She explained further that, in the grocery business profit margins are extremely slim because of the competitive nature of the business, and the pressure from large grocery stores like Sam’s Club, which can provide economies of scale-cost savings that the smaller Co-Op cannot. Betts also said that the Co-Op was not run primarily to make profit.

The store was not always the only grocery store in the Borough. In the 1980s, there was a Giant in the Ville where the Co-Op is now. The Giant’s low prices and larger selection nearly drove the Co-Op out of business in the 1980s until the Giant burned down in the late 1980s.

Students acknowledge the Co-Op’s convenience, but say the high prices are noticeable.

“It’s obviously expensive but that it wouldn’t be that much of a burden if there was a suitable alternative where you could get groceries within walking distance. It the fact that it’s the only option is what makes its priciness seem extra evident,” said Anna Marfleet ’19.

Other students echoed Marfleet’s sentiments.

“It’s cool but expensive as heck,” said Mohammad Boozarjomehri, ’19.

Despite the Co-Op’s high prices, its unparalleled convenience meanS students will likely be shopping there for years to come. Target also provides a relatively nearby food dispensary for students to buy groceries, but it is much farther and does not provide as many boutique, luxury items as the Co-Op and does not currently accept the OneCard. It remains to be seen if the Co-Op will change pricing because of increased student demand resulting from the OneCard System.

Alternative Eats

in Around Campus/Campus Journal by

Most students can agree that Swarthmore isn’t the most culinarily diverse or accomplished school. It isn’t uncommon to hear students complaining in Sharples about the quality or variety of the food. Due to our distance from the metropolitan area, we are often limited to Sharples, Essie Mae’s, and the restaurants in the Ville (Renato’s, Dunkin’ Doughnuts, Hobbs, Happy Wok, Aria, etc). The gastrological limitations at Swarthmore do not bother all students, but many of those that are affected seek alternatives.

Each dorm on campus has a certain reputation; Willets is the party dorm, Mary Lyon is the nerdy dorm, and Parrish has creepy basements. The Barn is no different, known for housing the more ecologically-aware Swatties, as a good deal of its residents are member of the Swarthmore College Co-op (a collective of students, not the local grocery store). Most students on the meal plan seem to believe that cooking for themselves would be much too time-consuming, which, while possible, is not how many of the Barn’s residents look at it, who choose to join the Co-op and share in the responsibility of cooking.

The Co-op consists of a group of students who work together to cook and prepare food, while being conscious of their environmental impact and keeping each others’ dietary restrictions in mind. Members share shifts of cooking, cleaning, picking up groceries, and organizing their social events. Sharing the workload allows the members to enjoy a diverse menu without having to commit several hours each day towards making a good meal.

Not all of The Barn’s residents participate in the Co-op, nor do all Co-op members live in The Barn, but there is definitely a large overlap. Members are still in the process of envisioning the co-op, according to member Natalia Choi ’15, so the overriding element is flexibility. Everyone discusses how they want to run it and what they want to cook, as not everyone is vegan (although many believe the Co-op composed entirely of vegans, it’s not).

For the Co-op, the choices they make about what they eat are, to an extent, political. Members try to buy food from suppliers that have good business practices, such as Hillside Farms in Media, a Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA. CSAs is a locally based distribution model for food, which support CSAs ensures transparency and that the money goes to support the local community.

Students choose to live in The Barn and join the Co-op for different reasons. Maria Elena Covarrubias ’15 was drawn in by the Barn’s independence and atmosphere. Once there, Covarrubias visited the Co-op a lot and loved the idea of intentional living and having a own space to cook.

“My goal is that we will find ways to share our labor equitably and will have good food cooked for each other every night,” said Covarrubias.

Though Ben Wolcott ‘14 is also a member of the Co-op and a resident of the Barn, he doesn’t let his passion for cooking stop there: he has also worked at the Grill at Sharples for three semesters. Wolcott said that he has always had tremendous respect for Swarthmore’s workers, and that he chose to cook at Sharples because he wanted to get a better sense of what their work there was like. Where at the Co-op, Wolcott cooks for an hour or so, he described cooking at Sharples as a hectic rush in which he’s cooking several things for several people under a strict time limit.

Wolcott most values his work at Sharples for the relationships he’s built with his coworkers. He regularly plays pool with Fred Carpenter, his Learning for Life partner, for instance. Though he doesn’t regularly eat at Sharples, Wolcott believes the dining hall is an important part of the community. A Sociology and Economics Major, Wolcott thinks that food, something most people take for granted, is inherently political, especially in regards to the labor involved in its production. With a rising number of student workers in Sharples, in fact, Wolcott is worried that the amount of full-time jobs Swarthmore can offer to members of the surrounding communities will decrease.

Perhaps the most novel method of acquiring food around Swarthmore is dumpster diving. It’s a divisive practice, one which students tend either to love or hate. One student that dumpster dives, who chose to remain anonymous, said that for them it’s a win-win-win situation — free food, less waste in landfills, and more money to buy food from local, sustainable sources.

A large part of the reason people dumpster dive is ecological. Doriana Thornton ’16, a resident of Mary Lyon, says it’s just another way for her to live ecologically and lessen impact, though she knows that her own actions aren’t enough and large structural change is necessary. The anonymous student agreed with Thornton’s statement and said that “it [dumpster diving] is one tiny way of working within the industrial food system to reduce waste (and nourish yourself without pumping money into the system itself) — kind of the edible equivalent of buying energy-efficient lightbulbs (only it’s free!)” Both students believe that the world as a whole produces enough food to feed everyone but distributing it to feed everyone is a matter of logistics and living conscientiously.

When it comes to methodology, dumpster diving is fairly straight forward. All it requires is knowing which dumpsters store food and which don’t have security. Simplicity, in fact, seems to be part of the allure for dumpster divers.

Though Swarthmore doesn’t have as many options as other colleges due to its location, it is possible to find other outlets for food here. The alternatives range from the everyday (being off the meal plan and cooking and eating with the Co-op or cooking for oneself) to the radically different (dumpster diving). And of course, more options doesn’t always mean more work. The Co-op is an open group which allows anyone to join as long as they’re willing to take a shift, allowing everyone to save time by spreading the work. All over Swarthmore, students are getting more done by working together to make us, and each other, eat.

Note: A source requested that I direct anyone who is interested in dumpster diving to them, so if anyone has any interest you can contact me at vgomes1@swarthmore.edu.

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