It felt like a parent-teacher meeting, or even a church social. Some of the participants were in fact parents with small children, and the gathering did take place in the brightly lit cafeteria of the Holy Angels Convent on St. Claude Avenue but the gathering wasn't about either of those things. The warm and cozy potluck dinner held on a blustery Monday evening was attended by more than 60 like-minded individuals from various neighborhoods who came together to discuss starting a cooperative grocery store in New Orleans.
The New Orleans Food Co-op is holding monthly potlucks across town to raise community support and funds for what will be Louisiana's first-ever co-op grocery store. Promoters hope it will be the flagship tenant in The New Orleans Healing Center to be located in the old Universal Furniture building on the corner of St. Roch and St. Claude avenues. To stay on track and meet their mid-2009 deadline for opening the store, the group needs 300 members by May 1. Currently, it has 115 members.
'We're trying to get the word out, so monthly we're having community meetings in different communities near there," says Erin Laine, a longtime co-op member and director of the group's buying club. "It takes two things to open members and money and we can't do it without both."
The co-op, which has been steadily growing in numbers since the fledgling group first formed in late 2002, currently operates a buying club in which its members order food in bulk at club rates, but it wants a physical space, a real store. Laine says the idea of a new cooperative grocery in the area (currently there is no major grocery serving the Marigny, Bywater and St. Claude neighborhoods) has been well received by just about everyone. However, some residents are waiting to see a strong commitment before they'll join. It may not happen if people don't join now, Laine says.
'We're hoping to build a groundswell of support throughout the city," she adds, "[but] just saying, "Yeah, sure, I'll shop there when you open,' isn't good enough." You can say the neighborhood needs a grocery store and you can wish you had a grocery store all day long, or you can do something about it, she says.
To open in the Healing Center and to apply for additional funding and support from the city as well as private organizations, the co-op has to have members.
Individuals who join now will be considered founding members. Because a co-op is actually owned by its members, early joiners also will determine the store's policies, what it looks like, how it's run and what types of food it carries. Additionally, there will be other member benefits once the co-op opens benefits that will be determined by the founding members.
Currently, members can serve on the board of directors, vote in board elections and have input into the design of the store. Future co-op membership benefits likely will include reducing the cost of food, members-only discounts, special members-only shopping days, and possibly reducing the cost of labor for the grocery store and by extension, the cost of food by having members volunteer to work a given number of hours per week or month. "If we have extra money, we're not going to make a profit," Laine says. "The idea would be to give that money back to the members (in one form or another)."
The store, the group says, will have that same kind of sparkle consumers experience when they step into the pristine, healthy atmosphere of a grocery like Whole Foods. "It's going to have a "Wow!' [but] it's also going to have a community feel to it, and it's going to have a local feel to it," says Laine. "It's not going to be quite so polished, but I think it will be a place that people will feel comfortable at, feel like they're getting a good value, and with every purchase you make you won't feel like you're buying it from some company but from something you're a part of."
The co-op hopes to carry primarily organic and local foods, including fresh produce, seafood, meats and bulk foods, and to include produce from local growers and farmers' markets. It will use other, bigger suppliers when products it wants to purchase aren't available locally.
The store has the potential to be whatever its members want it to be, because it will be owned by its members, says co-op founder John Calhoun. To Calhoun, the co-op is about more than just getting cheaper groceries.
'I was looking for a way to do something that would benefit the community around me, and food co-ops seem to be doing a lot of positive things on many different fronts," he says. "They bring people together, provide healthier food at a more affordable cost, and it's something that supports local farmers. And, the existence of a co-op grocery in New Orleans would really foster a sense of community and be something that would help bring the community together."
The New Orleans Food Co-op's mission includes those goals as well as one of reducing its environmental impact by purchasing bulk goods and those with minimal packaging.
The New Orleans co-op would be the first in Louisiana, one of only three states without a cooperative grocery store. Likewise, it would provide a much-needed healthy food source for the Marigny, Bywater and St. Claude neighborhoods, though all New Orleanians are welcome to join.
Entergy and the Food Co-op 500, a national organization designed to help co-ops get off the ground, recently awarded the group grant money to do a market study and create a business plan. Consultants from Cooperative Development Services, an organization that helps co-ops get off the ground, will travel to New Orleans within the next month to check out the area, study local demographics and compare the New Orleans region to other areas where co-ops already exist. They'll also meet with the New Orleans Food Co-op this month to help write the business plan and coordinate the co-op's ideas with those of the Healing Center.
If successful, the 5,000-square-foot grocery will anchor the proposed Healing Center in the Bywater neighborhood. While much renovation and planning remains to be done, the Healing Center and co-op hope to open in mid-2009. To meet that goal, the co-op needs members to help raise money, renovate its space, and outfit, stock and operate the store.
Though The New Orleans Food Co-op was working on a slower time line for obtaining a physical space of its own, it decided to accept an invitation by the Healing Center's developer, Pres Kabacoff, to be a part of the project planned for the old Universal Furniture building. Kabacoff, a Bywater resident and veteran New Orleans developer with HRI Properties, pioneered such developments as the Warehouse/Arts District neighborhood with his Federal Fiber Mills project as part of the 1984 World's Fair. He also had a hand in more controversial endeavors such as the Wal-Mart and River Garden projects in the Lower Garden District.
Although there is much debate among neighborhood residents throughout the Bywater and Marigny regarding the effect of several proposed developments on the area, proponents of the Healing Center say it is meant to promote sustainability in the aftermath of Katrina by rebuilding emotionally, spiritually, mentally, environmentally and economically.
Kabacoff has donated his personal time to the Healing Center and is working independently from HRI to secure public and private funding to get it moving. The Healing Center grew out of a series of salons held by Kabacoff, his girlfriend Sallie Ann Glassman, and other local artists and residents who share a vision of healing the community. "All of our tenants in [the Healing Center] will relate to one or another aspects of that definition of sustainability," Kabacoff says.
Other tenants include a new Wild Lotus yoga studio, Pilates and other alternative practices such reiki or chiropractics; a health food café, coffee shop and juice bar; a gallery space; a retail bazaar where local craftspeople and artists can sell their products; a street university where volunteers from the community can hold classes for area residents to cover subjects such as cooking, art, health and nutrition and financial management; and a police substation, a satellite for NOPD's Fifth District, which currently occupies the space.
The Healing Center also will have offices for local "green" building and renewable energy consultants who will offer myriad services, including educational programs for residents who want to reduce their own energy consumption, says Christopher Faust, director of sustainable development for NOLA Solar. Faust's group has been working with the City Council and its Energy Policy Task Force to fashion a plan to make the Healing Center one of the greenest, most environmentally sustainable buildings in the area. NOLA Solar plans to have its headquarters there as a continuing green resource for the community.
The renovation of the existing Universal Furniture space will include restoring the building's original facade, which currently sits beneath a 1960s exterior decor, revamping an existing parking lot behind the store, incorporating an indoor/outdoor courtyard or two, a meditation room, and new "green" building features such as solar, thermal and electric devices, cisterns, and a hydroponic rooftop garden.
As part of the Healing Center's synergistic purpose, produce from the hydroponic garden will be used to support other projects in the building such as the health food cafe and the grocery co-op. By using a reservoir of water and organic fertilizer mix to grow plants without soil, the nutrients and the water that carries them through the plant are readily available, making hydroponic gardens capable of growing more produce faster and in areas that normally could not be used for agricultural purposes, such as rooftops, explains Karl Barrett, owner of nearby Urban Organics at 2805 St. Claude Ave. Barrett will oversee the garden and its uses for the Healing Center.
A community center of this type has never been built in New Orleans, says Kabacoff. Both the co-op and the Healing Center are challenging projects that require a pioneer spirit. He is joined by other stakeholders like Barrett, Sean Johnson of Wild Lotus, and Andy Antippas, owner of Barristers Gallery and future supervisor of the center's street university.
The New Orleans Food Co-op hopes to be a major stakeholder as well by meeting its membership goals. A one-time founding membership costs $100 and can be made in incremental payments over a five-month period. Applicants on a fixed income can request a reduced rate, which also can be paid monthly.
The group's next potluck dinner and informational meeting will be held at 6:30 p.m. on March 24 at the Holy Faith Temple Baptist Church, 1325 Gov. Nicholls St. For more information, visit The New Orleans Food Co-op's Web site at: www.nolafoodcoop.org.
- Bryce Lankard
- In an empty space in the old Universal Furniture building, developer Pres Kabacoff looks over plans for The New Orleans Healing Center, which will house the grocery co-op, alternative healing programs, dining venues, a gallery, a retail bazaar, a street university and "green' consultants. Longtime residents will recognize "The Chairman' in the background from old Universal Furniture ads.
- Bryce Lankard
- The New Orleans Healing Center and the food co-op tentatively will open in mid-2009 in this building, former home of Universal Furniture. Part of the renovation will entail stripping off the 1960s facade to reveal the original architecture.
- Bryce Lankard
- John Calhoun talks to a group of potential co-op members during a potluck dinner in a church cafeteria. Calhoun and other members of the co-op hold meetings every month in which they explain the concept of a grocery co-op and recruit new members.