Westside looks at Bexleys success with food co-op

As talk continues among Westside residents about the possibility of a food co-op, some have begun to look at successes in nearby communities for a path to follow.

Martha Markstein had several things in common with her neighbors – they had children in school and wanted better foods for their families.

They did a little searching and found a food co-operative where they could pick up food on a weekly basis. "But it didn’t continue in operation," she said.

That’s when the Bexley women decided to form their own food co-op.

They planned to have 50 members in their co-op, or club. They’d pre-order their food, and when it was delivered, they would bag it up and distribute it among the members.

"It was a little awkward," Markstein said of the garage where they gathered. "The people had nine kids, so we had to move a lot of bikes. We wanted a place of our own."

As luck would have it, about a month later, a friend of one of the members discovered that a beauty shop was going out of business at 508 N. Cassady.

"It was a tiny place, but we were so excited," Markstein recalled. We took it over. We didn’t even know if we could afford the rent. We were so thrilled to have it."

They purchased equipment such as a cash register and a produce cooler, and someone came along and built shelves.

As their business grew, so did their business acumen. To become a real co-op, they had to name officers, and get their paperwork in order. They charged an initial fee and yearly membership. Members pitched in to work at the business. They hired a general manager and paid him minimum wage.

A while later, the adjacent barber shop went out of business and their endeavor, Bexley Natural Food, expanded. And when the pharmacy on the other side of their store went out of business, they took that over as well.

Thirty-two years after Markstein helped move bikes so they could package produce in a neighbor’s garage, she still volunteers a couple of hours a day at their business which offers mostly organic foods, but on the same basis as they did when their co-op got started.

She weighs and packages fresh food and candy in plastic bags in the area that once had been the beauty shop. Behind her are cardboard storage boxes containing supplies of herbs and spices that will go into jars. She also does some of the ordering, and even does the banking at times.

The store is open seven days a week, and operates as not-for-profit entity.
"We don’t make much money," she admitted. "We do it for the community."

The co-op is open to the public. Members pay one price, while customers who walk in off the street will have a surcharge added to their bill.

As interest grows on the Westside to form a co-op, Markstein is ready to offer suggestion to help them get started.

Donna Woods in community services at the Gladden Community House has held a couple of meeting after Jim Sweeney from the Franklin Development Association suggested starting such a co-op.

The first meeting was to see if there was enough interest in getting one started, and the second one was to get ideas of the value of a co-op, Owens said.

Organizers have been learning what people want.

"These early meetings have determined that people want affordable healthy foods, mainly fruits and vegetables, and that they would like to have them locally grown," she said. "We also want to put with that a strong education program that includes how to prepare the foods."

Community members would own the co-op, set the rules, determine how it should work, what kind of foods to buy.

"They run the business," Owens said.

Traditionally in a food co-op, people pay a fee to join and are expected to volunteer their time. These are the people who make the decisions on what food to purchase, where to purchase it and who will do the buying.

They’ll take the food to the co-op’s designated home base for sorting and pricing.

The meetings and planning sessions are important for the organizers, Owens explained. And she expects to get a lot of input from local residents on the Westside.

"We want to avoid pitfalls that some other co-ops face," she said. "Like any small business starting up, you have to have a business plan, some backing and customers."

Over time, they’ve learned to become stewards of the land. What fresh produce isn’t sold in good time is not wasted. It goes to a compost pile.

"We’ve been doing this for 31 years," said current general manager Anne Rose Schaffrin as she unpacked merchandise to stock the shelves. "We must be doing something right."

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