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Food Co-Op Would be Oasis in Local ‘Food Desert’

Bethlehem ‘cooperators’ hope to open grocery store in 2014.

The idea of food co-op organizers doing a feasibility study before launching their venture sounds a little like carnies holding sensitivity training for the guys who run the Whack-a-Mole game -- there’s a “What’s Wrong with this Picture” feel to it.

But after talking to one of the organizers for the proposed Bethlehem Food Co-Op last week, I realized these people are not refugees from a Grateful Dead concert tour. This is not your hippie father’s food co-op.

The “cooperators” – as they call themselves -- include business people and financial managers, lawyers, doctors, farmers, people who have experience with media and the grocery business, as well as professors from Lehigh University, Moravian College and Northampton Community College.

They came together about a year ago and have been meeting monthly. Colleen Marsh, co-chair of the steering committee, told me they are closing their feasibility study and are “cautiously optimistic” about a plan to open a co-op in downtown Bethlehem in 2014. It will be owned by members who make an “equity investment” but will be open to the public. 

They are looking at locating the store on either side of the river in downtown Bethlehem – an area that is considered a “food desert”  because of the percentage of lower income residents and its distance from a supermarket.

I asked Marsh if they weren’t worried about competition from Wegmans and Giant and other big food chains.

 “We’ve met with consultants who have told us that no grocery chain is going to open a store downtown,” she said. “We are really focused on meeting a need for fresh, healthy groceries downtown.”

In fact, the seeds of the co-op plan came from a red pepper.

A little over a year ago, Jaime Karpovich of Bethlehem, who writes the popular “Save the Kales” food blog, posted on her Facebook page a lament about how she was making a recipe that called for a red pepper and had to drive to a supermarket several miles away to buy one.

Cathy Frankenberg, now co-chair of the co-op steering committee,  responded in a post about food co-ops elsewhere in the country. That cyber conversation started a bigger one about the need for a grocery store downtown and specifically a co-op. The first meeting was in November 2011.

One of the cooperators’ inspirations is a place in Philadelphia’s Chestnut Hill section called Weavers Way, which is the very model of a modern major food coop. Check it out at http://www.weaversway.coop/

There have been a number of times in my life that I’ve found myself driving to a supermarket for an ingredient and never once did it occur to me to start a grocery store. This effort is a great example of private citizens who see a need and aren’t expecting  someone else to fill it. Instead of merely griping, these intrepid cooperators are becoming part of the solution.

If you want to help, vote for their entry in the Good Maker contest that could win the co-op $2,500. The voting, which is for community improvement projects, starts today (Sept. 27). Here's the link to vote: 

http://community1.maker.good.is/projects/bethlehemfoodco-op?sort=recent

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