Natural Foods Merchandiser

Co-op and community a perfect match

Jamaica Plain is just a few miles outside of downtown Boston, but anyone who visits the area will inevitably remark upon how far away from the city it feels. Though it was one of Boston's most economically depressed areas no more than a quarter-century ago, Jamaica Plain has bloomed into one of Massachusetts' most vibrant communities. It's now a bohemian enclave filled with artists, independent businesses and an ethnically diverse population. And unlike so many other rapidly gentrifying Boston neighborhoods, "JP" (as residents have nicknamed the area) has doggedly retained its eccentric and individual flavor. Opening a community-run natural and organic foods co-op in such a setting seems like a no-brainer. But it took some time.

"Surprisingly, the area wasn't served by any market except for a large, cheap supermarket," says Chris Durkin, member services coordinator for Harvest Co-op Markets, which opened a Jamaica Plain location in 1999. "We'd been looking into the neighborhood for a while. The area seemed like a perfect fit for us. The people here are very involved in the community. It's ethnically mixed and has a high education rate. There are a lot of people working together here for a variety of social causes."

The story of Harvest Co-op stretches back several decades and involves two separate co-ops. Like so many long-running co-ops, the organization was founded as a means for members to obtain healthy and natural foods at bulk prices. The original group, formed by Boston University students in 1971, was called the Boston University Student Union Food Co-op. In 1973, it became the Boston Food Co-op and moved to Union Square in the Allston section of Boston.

"The store grew through many stages," Durkin says. "It went from being open one day a week to being open three days a week to being open seven days a week. And then, after a short time, it became open to the public."

Meanwhile, across the Charles River in Cambridge—home to Harvard University—the Cambridge Food Co-op opened in 1975 in the Central Square shopping district. The co-op's mission was to offer an affordable, healthy alternative to the large supermarkets in the area. But the market experienced financial difficulties in the early '90s following a location change and rent increases. In 1992, the Boston Food Co-op offered assistance, and the two co-ops joined together, creating Harvest Cooperative Supermarkets.

But there were still some hurdles to overcome. In 1998, in response to decreasing business, the Allston location was closed. "The neighborhood went through a fairly major demographic change," Durkin says. "It just happened that we could not or did not meet the needs of the people in [this lower income] neighborhood anymore."

It was then that Harvest Co-op cast its eyes towards Jamaica Plain, purchasing a 6,000-square-foot building in the heart of the neighborhood's central business district. The new co-op opened its doors to the public in May 1999.

Harvest was welcomed by the Jamaica Plain community with open arms—1,000 new members signed up within the first two weeks of operation. "It's been fantastic," Durkin says. "We've done much more in sales than we ever thought we could in such a small location. It's been very heartening to be accepted by JP in such a big way."

Durkin says the key to being a successful community co-op is simple: Be a part of the community. "Boston has a strong Whole Foods presence and a Wild Oats presence and some other natural foods stores around," he says. "It's not the product that brings people in—you can get everything we sell at other stores. People come here because we are such an active part of the community. We're involved in a lot of different ways that go beyond just being a place to buy food."

Harvest Co-op sponsors several community events, including Jamaica Plain's Wake Up The Earth Festival, held annually in May. The festival is a celebration of JP's bohemian culture, with local artists, community groups and schools taking part. Recent festivals have included an enchanted puppet forest, local bands, dancers, acoustic performers and a giant puppet pageant.

In Cambridge, Harvest sponsors the Cambridge RiverFest, an annual spring fair on the Charles River. In addition, the co-op is the primary sponsor of the Boston Vegetarian Food Festival, which draws almost 10,000 people to booths featuring natural foods companies, environmental groups, animal rights groups, food tastings, classes and lectures.

The 19,000-square-foot Cambridge location also serves as a community center, hosting free classes, movie screenings and lectures. Recent events included a Russian language class, an afternoon of Japanese anime films and a session focused on how to use herbs in a variety of recipes.

Educating the community is one of Harvest's primary focuses. "When the Cambridge store started, we always said we wanted to educate rather than dictate," Durkin says. "So we sell Coca-Cola and Oreos right next to Newman-O's and other natural products. But we always have fliers up front promoting healthy living and nutritious foods.

"The free classes help to educate people as well, though they aren't all food-oriented," he adds. "We might have classes on anything from acupuncture to watercolor painting. The point is to educate people on what's a good way to live, not to tell them how to live."

With combined membership for both stores at a robust 5,500, Harvest Co-op is currently in a comfortable place. "We'd like to expand to other neighborhoods, like Somerville, which is similar to Jamaica Plain. They don't have a good natural market," says Durkin. "But right now we're just concentrating on doing what it is we do, better."

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVI/number 6/p. 90

581 Massachusetts Ave.
Cambridge, MA 02139

57 South St.
Jamaica Plain, MA 02130

Co-op president: Jeff Rosenblum
Co-op vice president: Jessie Myszka
Store size: Cambridge: 19,000 square feet; Jamaica Plain: 6,000 square feet
Total members: 5,500
Cost of membership: $20 annually for 2 percent discount; $200 for equity membership (New members make an initial $20 deposit and their 2 percent discount on purchases goes toward paying off the equity membership fee.)
Total annual sales: $14 million
Sales by department: grocery, 31 percent; refrigerated/frozen foods, 14 percent; bulk, 7 percent; supplements, 6 percent
Fastest-growing department: bulk

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