Kaylynn Johnson, '16, looks for some string cheese in C-Town, a local South Bethlehem super market, on Wednesday, Mar. 9, 2016. Southside Bethlehem is a "food desert" meaning it has no major grocery stores. (Gili Remen/B&W Staff)

Co-op works to offset food desert problems

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Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the individual who noticed other people were struggling to purchase food in South Bethlehem. The individual was Cathy Reuscher, one of the co-op’s founding members. It was also wrongly stated that six members are needed to fund, rather than form, a real estate committee. Also, the mentioned student’s project was described as expensive, rather than extensive.

Jaime Karpovich was in the middle of preparing a meal during the fall of 2011 when she realized she had forgotten to purchase a red pepper for the dish. She knew she would not be able to go to a grocery store and back in less than half an hour without a car, and she posted about her frustration on Facebook.

Karpovich described the difficulties living of purchasing food in South Bethlehem, which is classified as a food desert by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The department considers an area a food desert based on accessibility to healthy food and the proximity to a store with these foods as it relates to income to vehicle availability, which affects an individual’s access to these food stores.

Cathy Reuscher, a founding leader of the Bethlehem Food Co-op, noticed others related to Karpovich’s situation and problems.

“Within a couple of hours, another post on Facebook said they were having a public meeting at the public library,” said Colleen Marsh, the Bethlehem Food Co-op board co-chair. “Over a hundred people showed up at that meeting.”

Because of the low access to a quality grocery store in South Bethlehem, the area has been identified as a food desert by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. As a result of this status, the Bethlehem Food Co-op was formed by members of the community.

After the initial meeting in 2011, the co-op has reached 306 household memberships as of March 25, which is the number needed to begin forming a real estate committee.

“This has taken as long as it has because it is truly volunteers,” said Tracey Werner, the co-chair of the co-op’s communications committee. “It’s members who pay a $300, one-time equity fee to become members of the co-op. When we say you own it, quite literally, you do. You have voting power in the decisions that the co-op makes. You are a member of that organization.”

Ritter stressed the importance of keeping their members up to date and educated about the community and listening to their ideas.

The main goal of the Bethlehem Food Co-op is to create a community-owned grocery store in downtown Bethlehem.

“The average food co-op takes five to seven years from founding to open the doors,” Marsh said. “We incorporated essentially in 2012 . . . that puts us at 2017 or 2018. I think we’re on track for that.”

The board wants the store to be affordable and offer fresh produce, but also want to make sure all members of the community have access to it.

“There will be a professional general manager who knows retail and grocery stores and there will be staff,” Werner said. “It is our intent to pay all of our employees a living wage so they are getting money they can actually feed a family on. This is part of the cooperative principles that all co-ops operate under.”

Along with the end goal of creating a community-owned grocery store, the Bethlehem Food Co-op focuses on education and started a program this year to teach community members about good food choices.

“We rolled out our education program formally this past January, Marsh said. “It has actual classes teaching people (about) how to understand food choices, about urban composting, (about) writing about food and all sorts of things.”

Werner said the membership payment can be broken into a payment plan for those who cannot afford a one-time payment of $300. There are also scholarships for disadvantaged families who would not be able to be a part of the co-op without the additional help.

Unlike a major grocery store such as Wegman’s Food Markets or Giant Food Stores, the Bethlehem Food Co-op does not have major financiers or backers. The larger grocery companies can build a store when they want because they have the finances to do so.

Werner also said there are classes for kids that deal with playing with food, which is a fun way to teach children about healthy produce. They hope to find a space that will have room for educational facilitates to provide more classes in the future.

As Lehigh University is within the food-desert of Bethlehem, there have been several efforts made by Lehigh students working with the co-op.

“We had a student who did a really extensive research project on some different institutional membership structures, so as we move forward we can consider how organizations can get involved,” Marsh said. “We’ve also had students up at Mountaintop campus present numerous things to our board from ideas for systems and community development.”

The Bethlehem Food Co-op board hopes to have more students from Lehigh involved, and it is open to new ideas.  

“I find it to be exhilarating, fun, (and) interesting (to be) surrounded by a group of very, very committed people from Bethlehem,” Ritter said.

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