Marilyn Marshall Jones
Street farmers* Co* op
By Maxine Atlas
What do you do when the grocery
bill gets larger and larger—and the sacks
you bring home get smaller and smaller?
Or maybe you want produce which hasn't
been loaded with chemicals somewhere
along the line? More and more, the great
supermarket serach for nutritious food
reveals items which have been processed
to death, treated with unfamiliar chemicals of unknown properties, and, in some
cases, list wholly unrecognizable ingredients.
There are a number of neighborhood food buying clubs in Houston
where families share in the task of purchasing wholesale quantities of produce. It's
a plan that offers one solution to the economics of food buying, but it contains an
inherent disadvantage: Sometimes, families find themselves with more fruits and
vegetables—in quantity and kind-than
they bargained for. Some people have attempted to solve this problem and gain
more direct control over the kinds of
foods thay eat, by establishing member-
owned and operated food cooperatives.
The first successful consumer cooperative, still in operation, was begun in
Rochdale, England, in 1844, by 28 weavers who had been fired and blacklisted after an unsuccessful strike for higher
wages. At the suggestion of Ann Twee-
dale, the only woman among them, they
organized to obtain staple foods at lower
prices. Twenty-five years before married
women were legally permitted to own
property in England, membership in the
"Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers" was open to women on an equal
basis with men. They could receive dividends, hold shares, and vote-a remarkable achievement for the time. Since then,
co-ops have continued along the principles of democratic control, political and
religious neutrality, and non sexist membership.
In Houston, there is only one store
front food cooperative where members
have joined to collectively provide themselves with a cheaper source of more nutritious foods. This co-op is an outgrowth
of the now defunct Houston Food Co-op
and General Store, which was located on
Welch Street in the Montrose area. The
store was begun before the Texas Cooperative Association Act was passed, and it
had no bylaws. One person was able to
gain control simply by signing all the papers and conducting all the store's business. It soon became a sole proprietorship, heavily indebted through financial
mismanagement. When a group of Houston Food Co-op members realized the
store's progress towards non co-op status
could not be halted, they met to collectively organize a "real" co-op. They
named themselves Street farmers' Cooperative, and incorporated as a non-profit cooperative under the Texas Cooperative
Association Act. Streetfarmers' has been
in existence for about two years, and is
governed by bylaws carefully designed to
guarantee a democratic organization giving every member equal voice in the determination of store policy and the election of the board of directors.
All the stock available at Streetfarmers' is purchased, delivered, displayed
and priced by co-op members. Fresh produce comes into the store on Saturday
mornings. Two members of the produce
buying collective turn off their alarms in
the predawn hours to bargain with vendors in the Farmers Market. It takes a
good memory to move from one seller to
the next, remembering individual prices
and quality. Armed with the produce inventory and shopping list compiled by
the produce buying coordinator, the buyers make a second tour to pay for the
fruits and vegetables they have selected.
Produce is picked up by car or truck, delivered to the co-op, displayed and priced.
The buyers' busy morning brings
eager co-op members to the store. The
tight heads of green broccoli, fresh stalks
of celery, closed button mushrooms, colorful boxes of bananas, oranges and apples, along with tomatoes, avocados, carrots, potatoes, onions and seasonal fruits
and vegetables disappear by the end of
the day. Many people who come to shop
stay to visit. Artists, carpenters, teachers
and accountants, students, doctors,
housewives and office workers. Young,
middle-aged, and the older, and less affluent all meet here as friends.
Curiosity about the white plastic
pails lined up along floors and on shelves
leads buyers to the discovery that natural
foods, some organically grown, are also a-
vailable. There are beans and peas, cereals, flours, dried fruits, grains and flakes,
granola, nuts, seeds and nutritional yeast.
In refrigerators, coolers and freezers are
offerings of bread, cheese, eggs, frozen
fish, nut butters, oil, whole wheat pasta
and yogurt. Honey, molasses, tamari, and
natural fruit juices occupy the shelves. A
variety of cheeses at prices well below retail prices are available. Jarlsberg, muen-
ster, havarti, komminost, mozzarella,
monterey jack, baby swiss, brie and feta
are purchased from a local importer.
White, raw milk cheddar comes from a
cooperative wharehouse in Austin, along
with most of the bulk items available.
Bulk purchase, of course, means savings
for the consumer, so members do their
own packaging, in containers brought
from home. Shopping at Streetfarmers'
takes more time than the local supermarket, because buyers service themselves.
Still this casual approach to shopping allows time for talking with fellow members, and enhancing the communal sense
of people working together for their
common good. And this, after all, is the
foundation of a cooperative endeavor.
Because it is a member owned and
operated store, all members are expected
to contribute at least three hours each
month to the operation of one of the
four collectives which run the co-op.
There is a non-working category for
members whose schedules limit active
participation—these members pay an added surcharge. Since the co-op has no
other labor source, it is important that
people who can work, do work. People
over 65 and handicapped persons are exempted both from working and paying
It has been difficult to find enough
people either willing or able to provide
sufficient work hours to keep the store
open for long during the week. To compensate, Streetfarmers' has developed a
unique policy. New members who make a
committment as active workers may, after two months' membership, purchase a
key to the store from the coordinator of
their particular collective, enabling them
to shop between shifts at their convenience. All financial transactions are on
the honor system, and the universal honesty displayed has been a source of pride
to the membership.
The desire to find cheaper and better food has been the primary reason for
co-op membership. However, members
who have become actively involved in the
operations find there are social rewards as
well. There is a sense of community within a co-op difficult to find elsewhere.
Members have diverse backgrounds, talents and experience, but all share an interest in the concept of a cooperative organization.
Streetfarmers' Cooperative occupies
the front of an old gas station at 1800
Waugh Drive in the Montrose area. There
is no sign advertising its presence, and it
isn't easy to find. Still, people interested
in cooperatives as an alternative social institution manage to get there. Because the
business establishment views cooperatives
as a potential threat to their control of
production and marketing, cooperatives
do not have ready access to funding.
They are always in financial need, and
welcome the cash flow generated by new
members. At Streetfarmers', limited financial resources mean members must accept humble surroundings and must participate in operating the store. Those persons willing to make a real committment
will be rewarded by a congenial association with like-minded people.
Store hours are: Saturday from 10
a.m. to 6 p.m.; Sunday from 10 a.m. to 1
p.m.; Tuesday from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.
Page 18 February 1978 HOUSTON BREAKTHROUGH
Cullen Women's Center
~ offers Pregnancy Testing
Monday - Saturday 9-5 pm