Volume 79, Number 02 | June 17 - 23, 2009
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Villager photo by Helayne Seidman  

Members do all the work at the 4th Street Food Co-op.

Produce and politics mix at 4th Street Food Co-op

By Laurie Mittelmann 

Perhaps you’ve noticed the boxes of rotting apples and black bananas up for grabs outside the store, or walked inside to use the bathroom and smelled compost destined for the Lower East Side Ecology Center in buckets next to the toilet.

Maybe you’ve popped in to pick up some milk, and saw a girl crouched on the floor eating spilled raisins because she was hungry and wanted to make use of them.

The 4th Street Food Co-op, a small, nonprofit, vegetarian health-food store between the Bowery and Second Ave. on E. Fourth St., sells the most local, inexpensive and organic food possible. It’s also a community bound by ethics.

There’s a small rainbow flag sticker on the door, and a sign propped on the sidewalk by the front window saying anyone can shop there. There could also easily be a notice reading, “No hierarchy, no transnational corporations, no waste.” The co-op values democratic decision-making, fruits and vegetables from nearby farms, sustainable practices and people helping and learning from each other.

The co-op is a means by which Dan Biren, of Bushwick, Brooklyn, works “to change the world.” Members submit a formal proposal to discuss and vote on any suggestion that’s controversial. 

“Change is not as efficient, but it tends to happen in a better way,” Biren said of the co-op’s internal process.

At a recent meeting, members discussed a proposal for the co-op to accept membership dues through PayPal. Biren argued that they shouldn’t. He said its parent company, eBay, had frozen the Leonard Peltier Defense Fund’s account because of its activism.

The majority of people backed the proposal to accept PayPal, however, so it passed. 

“I’m over it,” Biren said, shifting his body toward the bulk herbs section to his left as another member reached into the store’s only refrigerator.

Villager photo by Laurie Mittelmann

A food co-op member enjoyed a snack.

Members don’t stock products made by large corporations. Last year, some revolted when they realized Small Planet Foods produced the Muir Glen canned fire-roasted tomatoes sold in the store. They found articles saying General Mills owned the company, and that its main shareholders included McDonald’s, Starbucks, ExxonMobil and PepsiCo. In time, the canned tomatoes disappeared from the shelves, never to be ordered again.

“I think the co-op is practical, in a way,” Biren said. “It’s a way to work in a capitalist system to try and create an alternative means of buying.”

Biren was taking a rare break to explain the store’s practices when another member walked past him to get a bag of cashews. 

“Helayne’s looking at me funny,” Biren said, exchanging smiles with her. “She doesn’t know why I’m not working.”

Members communicate in postings as well as in conversations. On the register, there is a sticker reading, “Eat more kale.” By the chip section, the “New Recipe of the Week” folder recently featured instructions for cooking vegan pancakes and raw mushroom ravioli.

Little is squandered at the co-op. Members compost everything from orange peels to biodegradable spoons, and they discount food going bad or give it away. They’re also happy to eat what can’t be sold. Jason Trachtenburg, 39, of Bushwick said he spilled sunflower seeds once and they became “floor seeds.”

“So what happens with floor seeds? Not too much,” he said. “You can’t really sell them. You can munch on them a little bit, I think. The official procedure is you weigh them and then you have to write it off as a spillage.”

Trachtenburg said he encountered the co-op as many others do. 

“You walk by it like, ‘What is this place? Is this some kind of fruit box depository?’” When he got past the boxes and bins he saw scattered around the produce section, he tried food he thought was delicious and bought it.

“I was won over by their groceries pretty quickly,” he said. “Like O.K., this is a really delicious apple. Oh man, that’s a good apple. Look at that lettuce. I’ve never seen lettuce like that so cheap. And the beans. I love bulk beans, scooping them right into your bag.”

Though the co-op may seem tucked away, nestled on a quiet block between two bustling avenues, its members are anything but withdrawn.

“The floor in front of the cash register was like the main stage,” Trachtenburg said, as he related his early impressions of the store. “And people would just be talking to whoever was listening, even if no one was listening.”

Trachtenburg realized the first time he shopped at the co-op that it involved something besides commerce. 

“They’d be talking out loud about political thought and the organic movement and health-related matters,” he said of workers and some customers. He laughed. “People often get angry about gluten.”

Trachtenburg returned several times before joining. 

“Even if you’re not a member, even if you’re not working there, it’s still more economical than anywhere else,” he said. “It’s common-sense shopping. It’s also community oriented.”

On a recent Monday afternoon, Helen Stevens, 60, of the East Village asked Helayne Seidman, 55, also of the East Village if she’d noticed another member buying a lot of produce the week before. Seidman told her it was for his juice diet.

“Good for us,” Stevens said, referring to the money the man spent.

Seidman looked at the glistening lemons and Pennsylvania apples on display in front of her, and then back at Stevens.

“Good for him,” she said.

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